WikiLeaks and the questions around online civil disobedience

On December 3rd, noted cyber-libertarian, and former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, John Perry Barlow tweeted: “The first serious infowar is now engaged. The field of battle is WikiLeaks. You are the troops. #WikiLeaks.” Barlow joined a panel on the WikiLeaks and Civil Disobedience discussion at Social Media Week that used this quote as a starting point to explore just what online civil disobedience really means and how it has been executed so far. Just how do you stage a protest online?

The Personal Democracy Forum, which meets regularly to flesh out the implications of transparency in the digital age, hosted the panel. Internet freedom activists who have used distributed denial of service attacks (DDoS) to shut down websites, saying they’ve invented a new kind of online civil disobedience, have raised many questions and issues, namely around how effective, moral and accurate this is.

When Mastercard and Paypal blocked people from donating to WikiLeaks, they were attacked by a group known as ‘Anonymous’ that flooded their websites so that they were unreachable and unable to respond to incoming traffic.

Deanna Zandt author of Share This: How You Will Change the World with Social Networking, finds it important to establish just how threatening this group of people is. “What they did wasn’t hacking,” she says. “It didn’t compromise the business of those two entities. Credit card data wasn’t stolen, and people were still able to use their Mastercards for purchase.” She believes it’s important to understand that ‘Anonymous’ is an “ad hoc name for different people coming together with collective action. They are chaos enthusiasts, who are interested in the drama of chaos unfolding before them. That’s one way to think about what they do. They are not a sleeper cell of people waiting to strike.”

So, the question is: Is this a legitimate form of civil disobedience? Barlow believes this form of online protest is dangerous. “DDoS is the poison gas of cyberspace. It’s irresponsible to use it because it does the very thing the internet is so useful for and that’s openness and transparency. DDoS closes down the openness of the system and I think that is inherently wrong. Architecture is politics. We need to see to it that internet is maintained as open and free flow of information.”

But Zandt wants to know “how do I digitally throw myself in front of a tank? What does that look like when it comes to being online?” She’s frustrated by what the face of digital activism has become. “So you change your avatar or use a certain hash-tag: is that going to save people’s lives? No! So what can we do? We need to recognise the inherent limitations of what we can they actually do versus just doing something to feel better about ourselves.”

It’s these limitations that bring about different approaches and reveal contradictions and varying degrees of effectiveness. “Phoning in tweets,” says Zandt, “ I mean, really, with all the advancements we have made is that the best we could do?” She raises the point that perhaps some people are afraid of giving a stamp of approval to DDoS as a political tool because that then makes it okay for their political enemies to do the same.

“What’s to stop the CIA, or Iran’s government ops, or whomever to do the same to sites we believe in and support? I understand, but I maintain another angle on the slippery-slope fears: I fear cataloging DDoS as illegitimate will ultimately prevent other forms of digital activism from being used, or even from being able to be used.”

Barry has been exploring these issues as part of the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) for the past 20 years. “In the absence of law guiding us on the internet, ethics and responsibility have to be the principals we work on. We need people who respect these qualities of human conduct.” He derides those who collected under the ‘Anonymous’ grouping for the DDoS attack on Mastercard and Paypal. “It’s not the same as in a situation like Egypt where it is vital for those who were tweeting from there to be unnamed for they faced the very real fear of being killed. We need to preserve it but it’s a bad idea to use it in this way because it reduces personal responsibility and accountability. The best tools to use are the ones that are open.”

What about what’s legal? “I don’t care what’s legal. I care about what’s right,” the rockstar of the panel says. Who determines that, asks Zandt? Ultimately, as Evgeny Morozov, author of the book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, says it will be the judge in a court of law who will decide what is right. Because just as those who stage a sit-in in real life know there are consequences for that, so too, must those who take part in civil disobedience online.

But he adds, these acts need to be based on moral cause: “People may try to change certain laws or government policy to fit in with the changing world of the internet, but they need to know they are going to suffer the consequences when they are caught.”

So it seems the question of intent is the real question at the heart of the matter.



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