Would the world be a better place if Electronic Disruption was completely legal?

THE electronic disruption of Internet traffic to several sites associated with the censorship of Wikileaks over the past months, has riveted public attention on the predicament of online civil disobedience in particular the use of distributed denial of service (DDoS) as a form of protest. The digital protests carried out by hacktivist group Anonymous, we know, saw the denial of service to Paypal and Mastercard and the subsequent arrest of teenagers in Britain and the Netherlands. Some forty searches and seizure of equipment were also made in the United States, although it is unclear as I write this, whether or not anybody has been actually arrested and charged.

The self-described virtual sit-ins deployed metaphors of the lunch counter sit-ins of the civil rights movement as well as the freedom protests in Tienanmen Square where the fax machine had come to the fore as a means of placing pressure on the Chinese regime by flooding telephone numbers with information. The latest wave of electronic civil disobedience (ECD) also followed heightened public concern over the arrest of Julian Assange and the events which have now occurred in Tunisia and Egypt following the release of the Palestine papers.

As one of the organisers of the 1994 ECD campaign against the Criminal Justice Bill (i) it would not be out of the ordinary to admit to a certain degree of trepidation and even schadenfreude. As events unfolded on twitter, I was struck by the similarity of the issues at stake. Whereas the Zippies aka electrohippies had announced the modem as a force for political change, and the subsequent 1995 Italian Netsrike had taken online activism to the developing world, Anonymous was now making use of broadband and twitter as a new form of political theatre.

Like the liberal backlash against hackers of any description which greeted hacktivists in 1994 (the word used to describe what was happening back then had not yet been invented!) there were both liberal and conservative attempts to squash dissent. Not exactly Cory Doctorow’s denouncing the Zippies on twitter, (what no twitter?) but similar kinds of trouble for the early electrohippies who had gathered in the 181 club in San Francisco to unleash “information warfare” — the Electronic Frontier Foundation then also issued a missive with much the same tone, as its tweets of today.

“EFF doesn’t condone cybervigilantism, be it against Mastercard or #Wikileaks. The answer to bad speech is more speech.” #netfreedom via Twitter

Believing that “one can’t fight for free speech by limiting it for others” EFF described the “ Zippie Intervasion” in a 1995 newsletter as an example of “how not to go about activism on the Internet”, for starters according to the foundation, there was no cut-off date. Our campaign had also sent mixed messages to a ‘gullible youth’ – on the one hand we had called for email protests, on the other hand we had enjoined people to clog the servers of Great Britain, to bring John Major and the establishment to its knees.

The press looked the other way while overloaded servers in the UK were attributed to anonymous “hackers”, in a game of psychological warfare called ‘blame the hacker’, in which Kevin Mitnick was ultimately arrested and tried by Hollywood (ii}

It was most edifying then, to be greeted with a repeat of the Commonwealth hactivism campaign which had officially begun on November 5. 1994, Guy Fawkes Night. In the months following the pivotal South African democratic election, I has personally announced the first “global electronic vote against fascism” before a crowd of supporters at the 181 Club in San Francisco.

While Anonymous took their cue from the movie V for Vendetta of the Alan Moore comic-book (the comic features Guy Fawkes as a modern day, dark knight) the Zippies used the exact same incendiary night as a rallying point and symbol for a new age digital troupe which had yet to become legion. At the highly staged event, and outnumbered by silicon alley executives, we kidnapped sixties counterculture hero Tim Leary, “forced” him to DDoS John Major, before announcing the dawn of the Singularity — the end of the world as we know it — actively participating in the subsequent book launch of Leary’s compendium with the rabble-rousing title ‘Chaos and Cyberculture‘.

As far as Leary was concerned, cyberspace was the new psychedelic and cyberdelia was about to be inhaled around the planet.  Eschewing the pharmacopeia of the past, virtual reality would be his next great trip. Hackers would end up inheriting the earth, even though the World Wide Web was in its infancy and the browser wars and dot.com bubble had yet to arrive.

Thinking about this event and comparing notes, I am struck by how much the press has opened up to suggestions by the Free Software Foundations’ Richard Stallman that hacktivism isn’t even hacking: “The Anonymous web protests over WikiLeaks are the internet equivalent of a mass demonstration. It’s a mistake to call them hacking (playful cleverness) or cracking (security breaking). The LOIC program that is being used by the group is prepackaged so no cleverness is needed to run it, and it does not break any computer’s security. The protesters have not tried to take control of Amazon’s website, or extract any data from MasterCard. They enter through the site’s front door, and it just can’t cope with the volume.“

After several high profile public debates — Tech President hastily convened a “personaldemocracy” conference on DDoS featuring media practitioner Douglas Rushkoff —  Cory Doctorow has been forced to admit, “We need a serious critique of net activism”.

How is a critique even possible if advocates of net activism are still being censored? What would the world look like if electronic civil disobedience (ECD) was legalised? I rest my case.

Not so fast, Evgeny Morozov is perhaps the one person with the most consistent viewpoint on the issue of ECD to be publised by progressive mainstream media.

Accordingly, “DDoS attacks can be seen as a legitimate expression of dissent, very much similar to civil disobedience. In other words, there are cases where DDoS attacks have more in common with lunch-counter sit-ins than with acts of petty vandalism. There is a legal precedent for such comparisons. In 2006, a court in Germany, asked to decide whether a DDoS blockade of Lufthansa for allowing its planes to be used in the deportation of asylum-seekers was tantamount to a demonstration, opined that the civil-disobedience analogy is valid. (Germany being Germany, the organizers of the cyber-attack on Lufthansa’s site had first asked the local authorities for formal permission to go ahead but were turned down.)”

The other voices on the subject are not exactly mainstream. Critical Art Ensamble, a collective of “tactical media practitioners” are the erstwhile authors of two books, the first, the Electronic Disturbance (1994) and a second a companion text, Electronic Civil Disobedience & Other Unpopular Ideas (1996) are published by Autonomedia and will assuredly provide us with some juicy quotes.

Next up is an Italian group responsible for the Netstrike action in 1995, who not being English are seldom given any credit in documentaries.

Tying for the prize of most documented and quoted are two groupings — The Electronic Disturbance Theatre (EDT), formed in 1998, and unrelated to the Autonomedia crowd, are an Internet Performance Activist group who staged a “virtual sit-in” on the Web sites of the Pentagon and the Mexican Government ostensibly to bring the world’s attention to the ongoing Zappatista revolution in the Mexican state of Chiapas. They make the list alongside a group called the Free Range Electrohippies associated with the second-wave Electrohippies who staged  protests against the WTO in Seattle. The Free Range Eletrohippies continue to wage cyberwar from a farm in Bristol and have also published widely on the subject.

All the above are related in spirit to the original act of collective ECD, the original meme (information gene), the “Intervasion”, which also has its precursors in the use of the Peacenet BBS network for activism and the anti-nuclear Wank virus.( You machine has been Wanked. Stop Nuclear War)

Some theoretical concerns

1. Is online communication strictly speech, or is it something else?

The Internet is the one place where the map is the territory. DNS and IP tables may be the stuff of electronic commerce, but these tropes have also become extensions of ourselves, our bodies. This is what is referred to as telepresence (TP) — an augmented dimension of the  Internet which does not fit traditional free speech models. The ability of machines to amplify and supplement reality, (machines don’t get smarter, the people who make and use machines do) all bring into question the free speech model touted by liberals. When ones opponent has a megaphone, and all you have is your voice, who is going to win a debate across the Atlantic? Again if I disrupt your virtual self, where is the harm?

Another problem is the psychological boundary of this new form of speech. Dorathy Parker once said of Hollywood, ‘there is no there over there’. In cyberspace the “there” is now over “here”, and thus a protest which occurs in cyberspace occurs simulaneously in our living rooms.

We are thus not simply a lunch-counter sit-in, but also a co-dependent piece of the grid — a browser-based gathering or digital terminal mob which has yet to be given a proper name. A denial of service attack is thus also a denial of service to oneself, a concept which is best expressed by the African expression, Ubuntu. We have every right to respond to events and to deny those pieces of ourselves which cause others harm.

2. Is there a natural justice element to cybervigilantism which is being papered over by those who wish to view the actions of Anonymous as pure civil disobedience?

The automation of protest has raised all sorts of technological concerns. The chief of which is concern about escalation of protests into all-out cyberwarfare with the ancillary problem of militerisation of the Internet.

Instead of entertaining such fears, we should rather be asking ourselves whether or not such a thing as electronic self-defense exists? Supposing a large corporation takes down a web-page they disagree with, we have every right as netizens to defend our rights online. Civil disobedience is just a first step, the next step is electronic civil defense/electronic self defense (ESD). If citizens may own weapons, why are they not entitled to  possess a simple programme called Floodnet or restrained by laws preventing the deployment of load testing tools like the curiously named Low Orbit Ionising Cannon (LOIC)? A taser temporarily disarms the perpetrator of a crime in a non-lethal way, likewise the LOIC temporarily removes service to the server of a corporation or individual who has failed to abide by civility, the result is natural law and natural justice.

If we are able to defend ourselves in cyberspace, we need not pass legislation, but rather consider the practical and technical issues (at least as an intellectual exercise) of resorting to code as a means of resolving such problems. Think what would happen if there was a “time-out” and a “hard-route” button in every DNS server. When enough people are offended by what you do or say, they might hit the “time-out” button, after 100 unique addresses do the same, they may get somewhere, in response you may hit the “hard-route” button blocking attacks and  forcing the Internet to route your online content, perhaps by saving and serving pages that are under attack from other servers. Is anything gained by such a discussion?

If replacing the relative freedom of today’s Internet with a system in which the outcome of any denial of freedom of speech was absolute and certain, there would be immediate benefits — we would no longer be able to censor each other or block content for any lenght of time,  since the only real form of censorship would be reduced to the practicalities of access and storage, which begs the question, how much access and free space is a right before it turns into a privilege?

Another way of thinking about this is simple logic. A system in which everybody had an absolute right to freedom of expression — to store a certain amount of content in the cloud — would naturally defend itself. Censorship would become impossible if self-defense was automated, resulting in mutually assured denial of service — the events which resulted in the take-down of Wikileaks would thus become a practical impossibility.

This is a model of resistance which is Nelson Mandela, not Gandhi. A limited campaign of people’s self defense, civilian-based defense against fascism thus coded into the fabric of society exactly like the Intervasion of the UK which began the online journey against Big Brother way back in 1994.  While it may not be  wrong to describe DDoS actions as pure civil disobedience in the Ghandian sense, but rather in the sense provided by Thoreau doing so ignores the contribution to the struggle for human rights made by Mandela and others, who accepted a certain amount of collateral damage. In other words, truth followed by action.

3. What are the implications of a democratic hacker space in which “words as war” are not “words of war” but something else entirely? (iii)

An email bomb is not a bomb, it’s just an expression, a manner of speaking, a virtual facsimile. The same way as saying “radio is my bomb” or “television is my bomb”.

One of the major problems with the Intervasion stemmed from the use of the term Infowar to describe what had yet to become known as Hactivism.

Our online and collective offensive against John Major’s cabinet inspired netizens to engage in acts of civil disobedience, most notably the use of the “email bomb” in which large quantities of information is sent via email, thus overloading and blocking access to an account or server.

We did not encourage acts of vandalism in which web-sites are defaced, nor did we hide or conceal our identities but rather played up to the psychological threat of the “hacker” and the “other” presented by the media .

There is no doubt in my mind that the Intervasion succeeded in hacking reality by coding itself into the urban mythology and folklore, of the same kind which created the subsequent Netsrike, Free Range Electrohippies, Digital Zappatismo and Anonymous.

Had we been given the same opportunity to debate the issues, which is now being lavished on the events surrounding Anonymous, I have no doubt that the democratic hacker space would have been more fully realised than it is now.

We thus failed miserably in providing anything more than a precursor to such events, a tit for tat force field, in the process, redistributing the kind of paranoia which resulted in the arrest of Kevin Mitnick.


i. The 1994 Criminal Justice Bill sort to put an end to rave culture by outlawing outdoor festivals and ‘music with a repetitive beat’.

ii. Mitnick was ironically arrested on February 15, 1995, the date of my birthday,. after a two year manhunt and found guilty of a federal crime for “stealing” software worth literally cents, in a movie scripted before he was actually tried and entered into a plea bargain to escape the prison system.

iii.I must thank Ricardo Dominguez of Electronic Disturbance Theatre for verbalising this problematic, one which has been on my mind for quite some time. Unfortunately, Dominguez appears to be neither the author of Electronic Disturbance (1994) nor Electronic Civil Disobedience & Other Unpopular Ideas (1996) he merely appropriated the term to describe his own political acts in terms of visual art and performance theory.

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