Thursday, August 16

The Problematization of Digital Civil Disobedience

After a sumer hiatus, full of booze and boys I am back and ready to start the semester. Here is unorganized rambling of some ideas I have been having about cyber civil disobedience and I would love to hear thoughts or suggestions. If anyone has any good readings or links or organizations they'd like to throw my way, that would be immensely helpful. Thanks for taking the time to listen to my thoughts! 

I started looking into the origins of civil disobedience. I have begun with Thoreau and his essay which is what informed Gandhi's theory of Satyagraha. The main premise here is not to challenge or confront your enemy per se, but rather to convert him to your cause through acts of civil disobedience. The idea is that the moral weight of unjust actions should compel the moral man to reject the unmoral stance of the state. Looking at what is happening with OWS and with hacktivists in general, I am not so sure that they embrace this stance. There is almost a we are definitely right and you are definitely wrong attitude. There seems to be a youthful arrogance that follows these hacktivist "attacks" ( i dont like that word, but I am working on a word that I like better). That is not to say that all hacktivism is this way, as you mentioned before there is civil disobedience in small actions like the blacking out of wikipedia and the downloading of illegal music. but i am very interested in the more popular forms of cyber dissent, because I feel that is what resonates with people when they think about cyber activism. I had this idea to compare the Gandhi and MLK's expression of civil disobedience with the Seattle WTO and OWS movements. I think that there has been significant changes to what is considered to be acceptable forms of disobedience among activist groups while at the same time there has been a constriction of acceptable protest behavior by state actors (NDAA and Patriot Act to be specific). This is all further clouded by the fact that digital technology is a legal grey area and both sides are clamoring to use the interconnectedness of individuals to their advantage. 

The second thing that I have been exploring is this issue of freedom of speech and the internet as a public space. There has been great discussion about DDoS and whether or not it counts as an infringement of freedom of speech on web owners. Can we reasonably make the comparison that DDoS attacks are a cyber form of a sit in? I mean isn't really about a bunch of people being in a single space to make it unusable? Perhaps this was not the intent of the civil rights leaders, but I do feel that it is a logical extension of those tactics. But the question becomes, do I, as a civilian, have the right to block Visa site because I believe that they are stifling the speech of wikilinks? There is an issue here with the right to buy being conflated with the right to speak. Is buying speech?

If me an my friends occupy a digital space to the extent that is is unusable is this an infringement on the rights of speech for others who want to use those services? If we make that claim then it starts to look like anything I do that impedes anothers ability to buy or to consume is infringement, and I dont know if I am sold on this argument.  Is there a freedom of corporate/commercial speech? what if it was a small business? Would a boycott pr a sit in be considered a infringement if people didn't have a choice whether to participate or not? This questions extends beyond DDoS attacks to other forms of cyber protest in general.  This question of what speech is protect is MASSIVE, and I am not sure if it is something that i can tackle in this thesis, but it has been weighing on my mind.

another thing that occurred to me after listening to Slavoj Zizek speak about the political act being part and parcel with the consumerist act. when I buy a chicken sandwich, for example, I am not longer just buying sustenance. I am purchasing a political ideology. The whole question swirling around chik-fil-a was one of freedom of speech, but buying a sandwich is not speech, or is it? I am very interested in how the flow of money shapes our conversations and understanding about political will. We have the freedom to buy our political beliefs, but we dont have the freedom to act on those beliefs in the public square (OWS, camping, general rabble rousing) I find this to be very interesting, particularly how it shapes who we talk about political discourse. Watching the news the only things you hear about this election is who has given the most money, and how that money is being spent ( i have literally heard nothing, about platforms, or issues, except for a little lip service paid to the economy and taxes on the wealthy. Nothing substantive). So then the question becomes if the political moment of OWS rejects the form of commodity politics, then where is the space that they can operate politically. if it doesn't exist and they have to create it, what are their rights to make that space available, and what are the growing pains and criticisms that they can expect to face? The infringement argument listed above is but one example of the critique that actors of commodity politics will make, but I know there are more. 

One of the other things that I have recently become aware of is the notion of "cyber" graffiti, though I havent really done much research into this as a form of civil disobedience. I am mainly taking about detournement in the form of culture jamming via geotags. I also saw this software that allows people to create digital billboards  or animations that they can overlay on top of a landmark and is only visible thru a smart application available for your ipad or os device. Like putting a middle finger over the NY stock exchange. stuff like that. But even with these forms of disobedience, i dont want to just collect a bunch of cool forms of protest, I want to dig deeper at the ways that protesting, our understanding of protesting rights are informed and challenged by both our consumption and innovative use technology and new media. and how the speed of change destabilizes traditional practices and definitions. 

Saturday, June 16

Free of Speech vs Freedom of Commerce

In thinking about online civil disobedience, and the relationship between public and private sectors, I have been spending a lot of time wrestling with DDoS attacks. Can a denial of service tactics (I prefer not to use the term attack since it carries a negative connotation) be seen as a logical extension of pervious forms of civil disobedience? Or is it, as critics claim, really an assault on free speech?

It seems to me that a definition is in order here. I think that free speech is something that we often evoke in this country without fully understanding what it means. There seems to be a lot of confusion about what “speech” really is. I think it might be helpful here to outline some of these arguments in situating our definition. Consulting Websters Dictionary is a good place to stat. Webster defines speech as 1. The expression of or the ability to express thoughts and feelings by articulate sounds 2. A formal address or discourse delivered to an audience. But we know that definition extends to include actions ranging from flag burning to campaign contributions.

Recent speeches given by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have helped solidify this conservative argument which began with Citizens United and equates donating to political affiliated organizations with free speech (not surprisingly, one that requires high levels of anonymity). It seems that speech is equitable with money and commerce. When we spend money it is a political act. We vote with our dollars you will hear proponents of this system say. If a corporation does something that you don’t like, you don’t have to shop there, and is enough people join you, like in a boycott, then you can succeed in either shutting the business down or changing the practices. But, that change is driven by consumption, not by political activism. Our power is derived from our consumption patterns, not from the ballot box. I hate the thought of us buying the kind of society we want to see.

Slavoj Zizek argues that this is a staple of modern capitalism, or what he calls cultural capitalism. He applies this argument to charity but I am interested in how this notion affects issues of activism and political discourse. For Zizek, he sees that there is a tendency to combine the consumer with the samaritan. The cultural pressure is not to volunteer in our communities or give to charity but to consume responsibility. He claims, that the act of consumption includes within it the redemption for living a consumerist life. For example, when we buy paper towels from a company, they may donate some portion of the proceeds to an organization that protects the rainforest. The fact that these claims are almost always vague and the solutions they seek are simplistic is another issue, but what is really disturbing about this is how this model merges the selfless act with the selfish act. By buying something, I am helping solve the problems of the world.

But if we accept this argument, then we accept that any disruption of commerce, whether it be through DDoS tactics or a “die-in” at a local chain store, is an infringement on free speech. Does this mean that when we act directly against any kind of private interest, we are infringing on the right of those interests to participate in commercial speech? Are we impeding on the freedom of others when we disrupt corrupt business practices? Even when those practices are known to cause the community harm?

This assertion becomes problematic when you have multinational corporations that control huge swaths of the economy. For one it makes boycotts more difficult as major corporations have plenty of alternate revenue streams and for two as we privatize huge areas of public domain it becomes increasingly difficult to challenge the business practices of others because of the perceived infringement on commercial speech, or the right to business.

But is the right to commercial speech a right? The Supreme Court certainly thinks so. As do the critics of DDoS tactics.

The problem with DDoS tatics according to critics like American human rights activist Catherine Fitzpatrick is that the by shutting down a website like Visa or Amazon, activists are impeding others from participating in commerce. She points to the civil right era sit-ins as a model for all forms of legitimate civil disobedience. She claims that 1960’s sit-ins represent a true form of protest because they didn’t infringe on the owners right to speak or to continue to run the business as they wanted. By not interrupting the flow business these protesters were engaged in legitimate action. But once activists interfere with commerce, she claims, their action becomes illegitimate.

This argument neglects the historical origin of these tactics. Mahatma Gandhi pioneered the practice of non-violent civil disobedience to which much of the civil rights era owes credit. His famous March to Dandi in response to the British Salt tax had a direct impact of “official” commerce. We can even pull examples from the civil rights era looking to the Montgomery bus boycott, and its success in repealing bus segregation. Civil disobedience has its roots in the disruption of commerce and the challenge of capitalist hegemony. The disruption of the pocket book is one of the oldest forms for direct civil action, from strikes, to boycotts, to sit ins.

But, thanks to the consumer economy, freedom of speech has been conflated with the freedom of commerce. In fact this was the very thesis behind Milton Freidman’s book “Capitalism and Freedom”. To attack an individuals right to freely associate with his money is an infringement. In this view, private enterprise is off limits from regulation, accountability and most certainly bowing to the whims of angry protesters. If it were up to Milton Freedmen, we could use our dollars to buy anything and everything from elections to underage prostitutes. After all that is what a “free” market is all about.

However the freedom of speech is so because it is guaranteed to all. The freedom on monetary association is not. Its is quite clear that there are staggering levels of economic inequality in this country and if we are to understand the freedom of commerce as a given right, then we are living in a segregated society, with some who have the freedom to spend and those who do not. It should be no surprise that those with the freedom of disposable income have higher political power, for they are able to project their “speech” further than the average citizen. The exorbitant amounts of money flowing into secret super PACs is a prime example.

Interestingly at a time when the right is clamoring for redefinition of freedom of speech to include political donations, they are simultaneously attempting to shield their donors from identification. This is very evident the recent remarks made by McConnell. Those who contribute millions of dollars to political action committees should not be subject to the intense scrutiny of the electorate; this is an infringement on their right to freely associate, he argues. Now we are casting scrutiny as an infringement on the rights of others. You can see how effectively by invoking the boogeyman of speech suppression any kind of direct political action as illegitimate.

Interestingly this extra protection of secrecy for political donors is coming at the same time we are seeing and hearing that we need to redefine our expectations of privacy. Our phones, our Internet searches and our emails are all subject to scrutiny from data companies to governments, but we are not privileged to engage in the same scrutiny towards those who seek to scrutinize us. A double standard indeed.  

I wish to reject the notion of monetization of free speech. While yes, I agree that spending money can lead others to infer your values, and feelings, it feels to me a form of privatization of free speech.  Are we to believe that the only kind of political action we can take is raising money for cancer, or donating to Moveon.Org?  To think in this way is to rephrase Gandhi from “be the change” to “buy the change”. I don’t mean to claim that there are not instances of any kind of “non-commercial” activism, there are plenty of examples, I only seek to point out that a predominate cultural attitude towards acceptable political discourse in cultural capitalist society. I believe that this attitude can help us understand the critics of DDoS tactics.

Tuesday, June 5


Out on the road this week you all. Sorry for the truncated post. But I wanted to share this video about the right of DDoS (Denial of Service) attacks to be counted as a form of civil disobedience. There are some really good gems in this discussion that I hope to parce out later. But unfortunately I am headed to Tennessee to partake in Bonnaroo. But fear not, I am taking a fistful of readings for that long car ride and hope to be back next week with some posting.

ps what do you think of the make over?

Tuesday, May 29

Here I go again on my own...


Let me first start by saying that I am horrible with these things. Seriously. I think I might have started this blog every summer for the last three summers. Every time I get a few posts in and then I just stop. I promise this time things will be different. I promise that this time I will be consistent. That’s because my very academic future depends on it! Let me explain…

I am unorganized. This may come as a shock to some whom for some reason think that I am on top of all my ish. I am desperately unable to remember things from one minute ago and if I don’t write it down, forgettaboutit. Even with this handicap I am required to do my thesis, and that is going to require some amount of discipline. I am hoping that this blog can be a place where I can contain and workout my thoughts and research and perhaps shed a little light on an area that concerns me greatly. Political activism.

I have met with a few professors over the last few weeks of the semester trying to gather some ideas and thoughts about my thesis. Ever since the fall I have really been interested in the political dimension of media. From blogs, to memes to viral videos it seems that the Internet is a verifiable playground of political freedom. But all these platforms are not guaranteed. Ultimately somewhere along the line you are bound by some terms of service. This is precisely what happened to Wikilinks. Their online political activism/advocacy was squeezed out not through a crushing governmental sanction, though we have seen that happen elsewhere across the globe, but rather through financial institutions like Visa and Amazon. Violate the terms of service and be expelled from the Internet,” they say, but we don’t get a say in those rules. Though the space for utopian expression may exist on technology that can connect us with viewpoints and philosophies from across the globe and through the ages, we don’t have a say in the rules that govern that space.

What worries me about this thought is that at precisely the same time people are clamoring about the “democratic liberation” provided through the Internet, we are seeing the most drastic privatization campaigns in history. The occupation of Zuccotti Park by Occupy Wall Street is a prime example of this principle. The park, originally and aptly named Liberty Plaza, was a quasi hybrid of public and private space. A public space, that was privately owned by an outside company that was “leasing” to the public. But when that public took a political turn this huge dichotomy opened up. Much like the case of Wikilinks, the public party was quashed by private rules. Rules that none of us agreed on, and that were seemingly arbitrary. This led me to ask my professor if he thought that the Internet was the new public space, to which I now think that there is no public space. That it is all facilitated through terms, and rules, and regulation (although I don’t like this word because it implies laws, through which we have control, however minimal, over) by entities that allow us no recourse in terms of their process. Though we may be customers, we are not constituents and we cant vote them out of office if they fail us.

In cases of Anonymous and Luz Sec, these groups have provided some political agency, but also face an international manhunt that has already claimed several well know hacktivists. The proposed jail sentences for these individuals are hefty. Though they were not without their malevolence, I became concerned about the ability to take direct action online, without fear of severe and lengthy punishments. What is the difference between blocking the entrance of Bank of America and a Denial of Service (DoS) attack against Bank of Americas website? Why are the punishments so disproportionate? What kind of “speech” are we willing to protect online?

Brian reminded me that there is disobedience that occurs online everyday. Perhaps I was too narrow in my original conception. He suggested that every time someone downloads a song illegally, that is a form of civil disobedience, every time someone shares a copyrighted photograph with a friend on tumblr that is a political act. I think that it might be hard for us to see it that way, because it is so pervasive, but I think that Brian is right. Information is the new currency and we are all making it non-stop. It is ridiculous to think that anyone can own it. And with the sophistication of modern computers and the ease of copying information from one place to another it is silly to think that anyone can control it.

But now I am concerned about privacy. How do I keep my own? How much is reasonable? Can expect that all of my activity online could potentially be used against me? Does this mean I can never look at porn if I want to be a politician? Companies like Facebook and Apple want us to get comfortable with the idea of sharing all of our data. Think of it as the price of admission. Even our general cultural attitude is changing towards one of ambivalence even outright indifference towards issues of privacy. There is this notion, we don’t get to make the rules, we just live by them. Last time I checked that wasn’t a democratic attitude. This laissez faire attitude towards issues, real, pressing issues, of personal privacy are coming on the heels of increased prosecution of whistle blowers, and all kinds of rhetoric about protecting corporate intellectual copyright. SOPA and Bradley Manning are perfect examples of this disconnect. For the user, his data, his passions, his entire life must be available for the picking by the same institutions that claim their data is private property and must be compensated for.

But what does that mean? Well that’s what I have to find out. Doing some more thinking about public vs private spaces. Maybe for next week I will try to come up with some examples of the barrier there. Brian suggested this book “Free Ride” by Steven Lavine, that he said he would loan to me. He called it incendiary so I am hoping that it will be right up my alley. Other than that I am going to look more into data mining practices that are legal. Brian told me that there are places where one can data mine others legally, and I think it might prove interesting to look at the extent of the law in this area.

One final word. I love, love, love comments. I love being challenged and hearing points of view that differ from my own. I certainly do not know everything, and I am sure there are those out there that have valuable insights for me or for the sake of good old fashioned discussion. So I implore you that if you come across this blog, and are engaged by any of the nuggets I am tossing out, feel free to chime in, to point me somewhere or to make me back it up and I will try to answer it in the following weeks blog!