As a Democratic Expression
Many hacktivists draw direct parallels between their hactions and live acts of civil disobedience. As such, they view the internet and hacktivist culture as another useful channel for peaceful protest and free speech. Because of the distributed, near-instant and difficult to censor nature of the internet, it is a natural channel for getting a message to a wider audience. Furthermore, as the internet can be seen as a "level playing field" for everyone on it, it seems to be an ideal platform for democratic discourse.
Those who see hacktivism purely as civil disobedience acknowledge that it sometimes causes financial harm to the victims, but further the analogy to real-world protests, strikes, sit-ins and political vandalism in which some non-devastating financial cost may be incurred. Such acts are (usually) not confused with acts of terror in the physical world, and so hactions should not be confused with cyberterrorism on the internet.
Besides facilitating free speech, some on the internet even feel it is their guardian-like duty to protect free speech or demonstrate in favor of it, as detailed by Alexandra Samuel's thesis (207). Indeed, the attacks carried out by Anonymous against credit card companies refusing to service WikiLeaks support this idea.
The disabling of the internet during times of popular uprising, such as in Egypt recently, further suggests that it is seen by governments as a crucial channel for the distribution of free information-- whether or not they approve of that fact.
In short, one significant meaning of hacktivism to the world is that it is a manifestation of the global free-speech platform provided by the internet. It has brought a higher level of information transparency and free discourse to the world.
As a Security Threat
The Wall Street Journal published an article on May 31, 2011 detailing the Pentagon's recent announcement that an act of computer sabotage coming from another country counts as an act of war. An unnamed United States military official is quoted:
If you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks.
Although this policy refers to cyberwarfare and cyberterrorism, not nonviolent hacktivism, the exact border between acts of digital civil disobedience and acts of digital violence is disputed. For example, the 14-year old boy taking down an Iraqi government website meets the Pentagon's definition, even though he acted independently and the internet made it unclear who was immediately responsible. Whether or not this should be an act of war, the ambiguity of the situation raises concern among some scholars, especially if there are acts of physical war at stake.
Alexandra Samuel argues that policy leans too far toward grouping acts of hacktivism with acts of war, especially with the ever-growing concern over national security.
the immediate and longer-term political consequences of 9/11 have led to the deepening of various international conflicts implicated in international hacktivism (243).
She details legislation in the United States and EU that broadens definitions of computer intrusion and cyberterrorism and increases penalties for such action. In the United States, it's the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act as amended by the PATRIOT Act. In the EU, it's the European Network and Information Security Agency.
Although the recent development of Stuxnet has shown us that cyberwarfare is an increasingly real threat, her conclusion is that we need to be much clearer about what constitutes a protest and what constitutes an attack. The Wall Street journal article also cites such a dispute as one issue surrounding military policy on the matter. Samuels says that the trend is to suppress acts which may even be protected in an offline situation, simply because the internet is new, and because all such acts are sensationalized by the media. If hacktivism could mean bombs for the world, we should agree about what is free speech and what is missile-worthy.