Civil Disobedience in the Digital Age

Hacktivist collective Anonymous, DDos protests, and the sit ins the of the turbulent Civil Rights era.

Back in the 1950s and ’60s, the Civil Rights movement championed the sit-in as a form of protest against racial segregation, a practice seen at the time as severely disruptive to business, peace, and general white social graces. Now, with Martin Luther King Jr. Day approaching, it would seem that at least some part of the decentralized hacktivist collective Anonymous sees itself as the modern inheritor of King’s civil disobedience teachings. And they kind of have a point.

Reported members of the group set up a typo-ridden request on the White House petitions site asking for distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) to be recognized as a legal form of protesting. The group is famous for the practice, having in the recent past gone after PayPal, Visa, Mastercard, and the government s of Iran, Egypt and Tunisia to slow their web connections to a crawl for some period of time.

For the technically disinclined, a DDoS “attack” involves flooding a website or server with a flurry of requests for data from a number of sources. The petition describes the practice as “the equivalent of repeatedly hitting the refresh button on a webpage,” which is a good approximation, assuming everyone doing the refreshing is doing so voluntarily. The result essentially slows down the website or server’s response to those requests for data (say, clicking a link) to the point where it is inconvenient to use or useless.

So, just as Civil Rights warriors clogged up white-owned businesses during their sit-ins, so too do the data requests of DDoS protestors clog up the flow of a website or server. Given the clear political and moral implications behind Anonymous’ past DDoS exploits, there’s a clear argument there for the practice to be a form of freedom of speech for the new, more digital world. In fact, one Santa Cruz lawyer is using the argument in an ongoing case, and other accused Anonymous members are reportedly considering the defense.

The petition is unlikely to gather the 25,000 signatures required for an address, and even if it did, with Iran set to launch DDoS attacks against US banks this year (not so ideal there), there’s not likely going to be an affirmative response. That’s not going to stop any DDoS protests, though, and even the sit ins of yesteryear weren’t legal. But then, most effective forms of protest aren’t at the time in which they gain popularity.

Admittedly, the sit-in analogy is somewhat obtuse, but given the disproportionate sentences handed out to protesters in the ’60s, there is a good parallel here. The current penalty for DDoS actions, as the FBI noted some time ago, stands at a maximum of 10 years in prison. Legally, it’s a felony, but the public perception is driving it somewhere closer to terrorism. In that sense, Anonymous’ DDoS petition, while likely ill-fated, does draw attention to the huge gap between our technological advances and our social and bureaucratic ones.

Hacktivists that make up groups like Anonymous are increasingly becoming hotly pursued public enemies. Most recently, we saw the suicide of tech prodigy Aaron Swartz after a long-running legal battle stemming from his attempted leak of nearly 5 million JSTOR articles in 2011. Had he lived and been convicted, Swartz faced 50 years in prison—the maximum sentence for, say, a first-time offense for selling child pornography, maxes out at around 20 years. It is that kind of demonization of an “enemy” that happens when legislators (and the public at large) aren’t at the head of the technological curve. I mean, surely we don’t believe hacktivism protests are grave crimes on the same scale as manslaughter or selling child porn.

But as technology continues to develop faster than our societal maturation, that perception gap is only going to increase. Unless, of course, these hacktivists continue to stage protests and force the public to pay attention to their cause. That DDoS protests are illegal doesn’t really seem to matter—they can be effective either way. Whether Anonymous employs this modern form of civil disobedience in the canon of Dr. King will decide just how effective they will be.