Internet politics aren't just about trolling and doxxing. In new book The Coming Swarm, internet researcher Molly Sauter takes us into the secret history of civil disobedience online, and reveals a world where people fight for justice, without hashtags or personal glory. These activists do it because they believe in something bigger than themselves.
On November 28, 2010, Wikileaks, along with the New York Times, Der Spiegel, El Pais, Le Monde, and The Guardian began releasing documents from a leaked cache of 251,287 unclassified and classified US diplomatic cables, copied from the closed Department of Defense network SIPRnet. The US government was furious. In the days that followed, different organizations and corporations began distancing themselves from Wikileaks. Amazon WebServices declined to continue hosting Wikileaks' website, and on December 1, removed its content from its servers.
The next day, the public could no longer reach the Wikileaks website at wikileaks.org; Wikileaks' Domain Name System (DNS) provider, EveryDNS, had dropped the site from its entries on December 2, temporarily making the site inaccessible through its URL. Shortly thereafter, what would be known as the "Banking Blockade" began, with PayPal, PostFinance, MasterCard, Visa, and Bank of America refusing to process online donations to Wikileaks, essentially halting the flow of monetary donations to the organization.
Wikileaks' troubles attracted the attention of Anonymous, a loose group of internet denizens, and in particular, a small subgroup known as AnonOps, who had been engaged in a retaliatory distributed denial of service (DDoS) campaign called Operation Payback, targeting the Motion Picture Association of America and other pro-copyright, antipiracy groups since September 2010. A DDoS action is, simply, when a large number of computers attempt to access one website over and over again in a short amount of time, in the hopes of overwhelming the server, rendering it incapable of responding to legitimate requests.
Anons, as members of the Anonymous subculture are known, were happy to extend Operation Payback's range of targets to include the forces arrayed against Wikileaks and its public face, Julian Assange. On December 6, they launched their first DDoS action against the website of the Swiss banking service, PostFinance. Over the course of the next 4 days, Anonymous and AnonOps would launch DDoS actions against the websites of the Swedish Prosecution Authority, EveryDNS, Senator Joseph Lieberman, MasterCard, two Swedish politicians, Visa, PayPal, and Amazon.com, and others, forcing many of the sites to experience at least some amount of downtime.
For many in the media and public at large, Anonymous' December 2010 DDoS campaign was their first exposure to the use of this tactic by activists, and the exact nature of the action was unclear. Was it an activist action, a legitimate act of protest, an act of terrorism, or a criminal act? These DDoS actions—concerted efforts by many individuals to bring down websites by making repeated requests of the websites' servers in a short amount of time—were covered extensively by the media. This coverage was inconsistent in its characterization but was open to the idea that these actions could be legitimately political in nature. In the eyes of the media and public, Operation Payback opened the door to the potential for civil disobedience and disruptive activism on the internet. But Operation Payback was far from the first use of DDoS as a tool of activism. Rather, DDoS actions have been in use for over two decades, in support of activist campaigns ranging from pro-Zapatistas actions to protests against German immigration policy and trademark enforcement disputes.
The overwhelmingly privatized nature of the internet is a challenge to the practice of activism online, on the levels of large-scale peaceable assembly, freedom of expression, and civil disobedience. Early practitioners of DDoS actions recognized this, and staged their actions, in part, with the goal of legitimating, through practice, civil disobedience online. However, their actions did not stop continued, successful efforts by corporate, state, and regulatory powers to render the internet a privately controlled space, similar to the "privately- controlled public spaces" that pepper our physical cities today, such as Zucotti Park, the home of the original Occupy Wall Street encampment. In this frame of privatization, disruptive activism is forced into conflict with the rights of private property holders, the rights and philosophies of free speech fighting with deeply engrained property rights of individuals and companies. In the physical world, activists can take their actions to the street, a culturally respected and legally protected avenue for the outpouring of civic sentiment of all kinds, be it the 1963 March on Washington or the Nationalist Socialist Party of America on the streets of Skokie. There is no "street" on the internet.
Because of this all-encompassing privatization and other reasons to be explored in this work, the theoretical and practical challenges faced by those seeking to engage in collective action, civil disobedience or disruptive activism online are different from those faced by activists organizing similarly motivated actions in the physical world. However, the two domains are often treated as though they were the same. Infringement on the property rights of private actors is often brought up as a criticism of DDoS actions, as if there was a space online that wasn't controlled by one private entity or another. Charges of censorship are usually thrown into the mix as well, because (ironically) of the internet's overwhelming use as an outlet for speech, by individuals, corporations, states, and everyone else. "Why," the critique goes, "can't you come up with a way to protest that doesn't step on somebody else's toes?" But the internet, as it were, is all somebody else's toes.
Collectively, we have allowed the construction of an entire public sphere, the internet, which by accidents of evolution and design, has none of the inherent free speech guarantees we have come to expect. Dissenting voices are pushed out of the paths of potential audiences, effectively removing them from the public discourse. There is nowhere online for an activist to stand with her friends and her sign. She might set up a dedicated blog—which may or may not ever be read—but it is much harder for her to stand collectively with others against a corporate giant in the online space. Because of the densely intertwined nature of property and speech in the online space, unwelcome acts of collective protest become also acts of trespass.
While disruptive activist actions such as DDoS actions are condemned for being an unreasonable violation of others' rights, they are also derided as being too easy. This "slacktivist" critique posits that most tools of digital activism, from disruptive tactics such as DDoS actions to changing your Facebook profile picture to proclaim your support of a cause, are lazy, simplistic modes of engagement that have little real effect on activist causes, and as such have no value. As Malcolm Gladwell articulates it in his critique of "slacktivism," which he refers to as internet-based, "weak-ties" activism:
"In other words, Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro. [North Carolina, 1960]"
Oxblood Ruffin, one of the founding members of the influential hacktivist organization Cult of the Dead Cow, made a similar critique of Anonymous' use of DDoS:
"I've heard DDoSing referred to as the digital equivalent of a lunch counter sit-in, and quite frankly I find that offensive. It's like a cat burglar comparing himself to Rosa Parks. Implicit in the notion of civil disobedience is a willful violation of the law; deliberate arrest; and having one's day in court. There is none of that in DDoSing. By comparison to the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement DDoSing tactics are craven."
Evegeny Morozov has similarly called internet-based activism "the ideal type of activism for a lazy generation," explicitly contrasting these actions to sit-ins and other iconic protest actions in past that involved "the risk of arrest, police brutality, or torture."
These critiques make a series of assumptions about the purpose and practice of activism and often ground themselves historically in the Civil Rights Movement and anti-Vietnam War protests. In this model, worthwhile activism is performed on the streets, where the activist puts himself in physical and legal peril to support his ideals. Activism is "hard," not just anyone can do it. Activism has a strong, discernible effect on its target. If the activist is not placing herself in physical danger to express her views, then it is not valid activism.
The "slacktivist" critique achieves its rhetorical purpose by holding a developing, theoretically juvenile body of activist practices in comparison with the exceptional activist movements of the past. But it fails to consider that activism can have many divergent goals beyond direct influence on power structures. It explicitly denies that impact on individuals and personal performative identification with communities of in- terest can be valid activist outcomes. It demands a theoretical and practical maturity from a sphere of activism (i.e., online activism) that has not been around long enough to either adapt the existing body of theory and practice to the online environment or generate its own. It casts as a failure the fact that the simpler modes of digitally based activism allow more people to engage. As the cost of entry-level engagement goes down, more people will engage. Some of those people will continue to stay involved with activist causes and scale the ladder of engagement to more advanced and involved forms of activism. Others won't. But there must be a bottom rung to step on, and so-called slacktivism can serve as that in the online activist space.
Activist DDoS actions are easy to criminalize in the eye of the public. In fact, the majority of DDoS actions reported in the news media are criminal actions. DDoS is a popular tactic of extortion, harassment, and silencing. Here is another challenge faced by practitioners of activist DDoS actions notfaced by individuals participating in other types of disruptive actions: a sit-in is perceived as activist in nature, a DDoS action is perceived as criminal. Sit-ins are overwhelmingly used in activist situations. DDoS is deployed as a tactic of criminality much more than it is as a tactic of activism. This means that each use of DDoS as an activist tactic must first prove that it is not criminal before it can be accepted as activism. This raises vexing questions about the use of multipurpose tactics in activism when they are also effective criminal tactics. Is it possible for DDoS to be taken seriously as a tool of activism when it must first overcome such a strong association with criminality?
Today's DDoS actions are part of a history of denial of service (DoS) actions. Actions such as strikes, work slowdowns, blockades, occupations, and sit-ins all serve as ideological and theoretical antecedents to the digitally based DDoS action. Activist DDoS actions have undergone basic shifts in practice, purpose, and philosophy over the last two decades. Beginning as an exercise by experienced activists looking to stake out the internet as a new zone of action, it is now mainly practiced by transgressive, technologically mediated subcultures, often focused on internet-centered issues, who consider the online space to be a primary zone of socialization, communication, and activism. This has had implications for the basic sets of motives behind actions, the technological affordances present in the tools used, and the specific contexts of the tactics' deployment.
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 Evgeny Morozov, "Foreign Policy: Brave New World of Slacktivism," NPR, May 19, 2009. Last accessed March 3, 2014.