Are Online Attacks Civil Disobedience?

And other questions from the PDF symposium on WikiLeaks and Internet freedom

This past Saturday, Personal Democracy Forum hosted a symposium about Internet freedom issues raised by WikiLeaks. (Videos of the gathering are available here.)
Afterward, PDF editor Micah Sifry posted a summary of some of the most interesting questions to come out of the day’s conversations:

1. Is what WikiLeaks has done journalism, and thus entitled to protection?

2. Does the DDOS response of Anonymous et al constitute vengeful anarchic lawlessness - or is it understandable civil disobedience?

3. Is it sensible to trust companies to determine who is permitted to publish on the Internet?

The second question, in particular, has generated a lot of debate. Deanna Zandt wrote her thoughts about what she calls “chaos enthusiasts,” the online activists associated with “Anonymous,” who disrupted the service of Paypal,, and other sites that had refused business with WikiLeaks. Her nuanced discussion of whether Anonymous’s actions can be categorized as legitimate, justifiable political acts of protest is worth the full read, but here’s a highlight:

Perhaps what some people are afraid of is that giving a stamp of approval to DDoS as a political tool 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? Again, 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.

It’s hard to ignore the tinge of hypocrisy in Anonymous’s methods of expressing support for WikiLeaks: that is, shutting websites down in the name of free access to information. (Though that cognitive dissonance shouldn’t come as a surprise; as this article in The Guardian on the inner workings of Anonymous reveals, this loose collective of 4Chan cast-offs is a lot more like an online “Fight Club” than a cohesive organization making a political statement.)

Nathan Freitas, commenting on Zandt’s post, calls DDoS “a lazy form of civil disobedience, at best,” and says that “the proper CD for Wikileaks if you support them is to mirror, and not to DDoS their adversaries.” Tom Watson takes it a step further on his blog, comparing DDos attacks to a pair of Molotov cocktails thrown into The Riverdale Press’s Bronx editorial offices that shut down the paper for five months in 1989. Watson writes:

Those men, like the group that declares it is defending Wikileaks and its leader Julian Assange, were anonymous. And like the anonymous attackers of Amazon, Visa, MasterCard and PayPal, they were attempting to silence without consent or recourse the commercial speech of an institution they disagreed strongly with. They believed their cause was a just one, based upon a gross and unlawful insult, as well as their deeply-held beliefs.

In their case, it was the strong conviction that author Salman Rushdie should die for the religious blasphemy in The Satanic Verses, and that a newspaper that defended Rushdie’s First Amendment rights in the United States to sell his book in any bookstore in the land must be silenced and shuttered. Who can doubt that these men (never caught) believed their cause was a just one, and that The Riverdale Press deserved to lose its editorial voice using the most expedient technology available (firebombs)?

Who can doubt that the Anonymous hackers and their supporters believe they are the righteous actors in today’s battle over Wikileaks and free speech? They are every bit as certain of their cause as the men who blew up a Bronx newspaper. Yet an action that attacks the rights of self expression of others (in this case, commercial entities, like bookstores and credit card companies and newspapers) surely cannot serve, in any creditable way, to defend free speech.

And just in case anyone doesn’t think the rise of DDoS attacks are a big deal, or thinks they won’t continue to be a problem, here’s one more important point, courtesy of Micah Sifry’s Twitter feed on Sunday:

Note to all the GOP 2012 presidential webmasters: You may want to study this DDOS thing. Like it or not, it’s going to give you headaches.

(h/t Nancy Scola and Phoebe Connelly)

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner