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Are the Cyber Battles with the Enemies of WikiLeaks the New Civil Disobedience?

Are distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks a legitimate and effective form of protest?

The WikiLeaks controversy has opened up one of the most complicated intersections of politics and the Internet that we’ve seen in a while. One particularly interesting development has been the launch of attacks against companies and politicians perceived to be foes of WikiLeaks, by a loose group of online activists called Anonymous.

At the Personal Democracy Forum’s symposium on Wikileaks over the weekend, organizer and blogger  Noel Hidalgo put forth an idea that divided the room pretty quickly: that the  distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks are a legitimate form of civil disobedience.

A quick lesson on DDoS for the unfamiliar: a group of people gets together and decides to render a website unusable. They do this by flooding the website’s server with so many requests that the server gets overloaded and either slows down, or stops responding altogether. A big important point: this is not hacking. “Hacking” generally applies to incidents where systems are actually broken into and data is compromised. DDoS doesn’t do this.

Anonymous (more on them in a second) decided to render, among others, Mastercard’s website unusable. This does not mean that credit card data was stolen, or that people were unable to use their Mastercards for purchases. It means that if you went to, you got a message that the website was unavailable.

So, the question: is this a legitimate form of civil disobedience?

The first sentence of the civil disobedience entry in Wikipedia reads, “Civil disobedience is the active, professed refusal to obey certain laws, demands, and commands of a government, or of an occupying international power.” After that, all bets are off on what you consider the term to mean. It’s generally accepted in the US to mean an organized, non-violent way of protesting or expressing extreme displeasure with a situation. I’m certainly open to hearing others’ definitions, here -- this is as concisely as I can nail my own understanding.

The next part of this question is to look at the word “legitimate.” Legitimate doesn’t always mean legal; in fact, most of the time, it doesn’t have much to do with law at all. I want to clarify this because it also explains how I approach politics. As I said in my talk at PdF this year:

Let’s be clear about what politics are. “Politics” is not just about candidates, elections, and ballot initiatives. Politics is the art and science of influencing or changing any kind of power relationship: the cultural norms by which we act; the laws that govern us; the expectations we experience based on our gender, race, class, sexuality, abilities, and more. When I talk about political work, I’m talking about challenging and radically redefining those power relationships.

Because “legitimate” is so much more than laws, in the same way that politics is more than government, I use the term to mean “justifiable,” or otherwise “acceptable.”

To be clear, most DDoS attacks are rarely explicitly politically motivated; the people that commit them are often just in it for the lulz. (In other words, in it for kicks ‘n’ giggles.) Those folks, typical of Anonymous’ membership, are what I call “chaos enthusiasts.” They want to cause disruption for its own sake, and love watching the theater and drama of an attack play out. When politics do become involved, other tactics are often added to the DDoS attacks, and aren’t what I’d consider OK within the realm of protest vs. power. Friends, clients and colleagues have been the victim of this end Anonymous’ work in the past -- particularly my feminist cohorts have experienced their brutal misogyny.

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