The Future of Civil Disobedience | rheacock | December 10, 2013


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The Future of Civil Disobedience

Molly Sauter

This article previously appeared in a different version on the Io9 website.

The Internet is a central zone for political organizing. When there is a message to get out or a group to build, most people will turn to the Internet and the tools and networks on it. Online, people sign petitions, investigate stories and rumors, amplify links and videos, donate money, and show their support for causes in a variety of ways. But as familiar and widely accepted activist tools—petitions, fundraisers, mass letter-writing, call-in campaigns and others—find equivalent practices in the online space, what about tactics like street marches, picket lines, sit-ins, and occupations? Where is the space online for civil disobedience?

The affordances of networked technologies mean our opportunities for effective political activism have increased exponentially. Where activists once put their physical bodies on the line to fight for a cause, they can now engage in digitally based acts of civil disobedience from their keyboards. Digitally based civil disobedience is developing along three major lines: Disruption, Information Distribution, and Infrastructure. Each works to empower the public, and each has its own particular challenges and benefits.

Disruptive tactics like distributed denial of service actions and website defacements have a fairly long history in Internet terms. Activists groups like the Electronic Disturbance Theater, the Strano Network, pro-Palestinian groups, and others used DDOS and website defacements in their campaigns as early as the mid-1990s. These tactics disrupt the normal flow of information, directing attention to a cause and message. Disruptive tactics are popularly focused: they aim to deliver a message to as many people as possible, by either exposing them to disruption and dissent, recruiting them to take part, or both. To be effective, this type of civil disobedience needs to attract the attention of the public, typically through the mainstream media. If the media doesn't recognize or cover the actions as acts of protest, then the activist message falls flat. (If an activist defaces a corporate website, and no one sees it, does it have political impact? Probably not.)

Information Distribution-based tactics are built around the acquisition and release of information that someone doesn't want someone else to have. In the past three years, we've seen whistleblowing, information exfiltration, doxxing (releasing personal information, such as addresses and social security numbers, about others online), and crowdsourced vigilante investigations become the tactics of choice for groups such as Wikileaks and Anonymous and those they inspire. These tactics, in one way or another, move information from a state of low visibility to one of high visibility. Crowdsourced vigilante investigations and “human flesh search”-style manhunts try to bring public attention to injustices in cases where traditional law enforcement avenues seem to have failed. Anonymous has been developing this tactic in the US and Canada with Steubenville, #JusticeforReteah, and other operations. “Human flesh search” message boards are already popular in China, giving netizens the chance to bring formerly untouchable corrupt officials to justice. The FindtheBostonBombers subreddit was a homegrown example of this kind of crowdsourced vigilante investigation. The goal of this class of tactics is to empower people to take action by adding to the information landscape. Whistleblowers and leakers rely on the cooperation of the mainstream media to publicize, contextualize, and analyze the information they release. This may become easier as more news organization recognize open paths for whistleblowers and leakers. Wikileaks' five media partners for the Cablegate documents, the New Yorker's Strongbox program, and the Guardian's extensive work with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden are all examples of how cooperation between whistleblowers and news organizations is growing.

Infrastructure-based activism involves the creation of alternate systems to replace those that have been compromised by state or corporate information-gathering schemes. Tor, Diaspora, and are examples, as are the guerrilla VPNs and network connections that often spring up—generally provided by activists in other countries—to serve embattled areas. Similar to living off the grid, these projects provide people with options beyond the default. Open source or FLOSS software and Creative Commons follow the same generative ideology: when the system stops working, create a new system. The challenge is to bring these new systems into widespread use without allowing them to be compromised, either in terms of ideology or of security for users. However, these new systems often have to fight network effects as they struggle to attract users away from dominant systems: Diaspora faced this issue with Facebook. Without being able to disrupt dominant systems, user migration is often slow and piecemeal, lacking the impact activists hope for.

Disruption, Information Distribution, and Infrastructure tactics and strategies are often practiced by separate groups working independently on different issues. Sometimes these groups’ interests will overlap, as when Anonymous launched the disruptive Operation Payback in support of Wikileaks during Cablegate, but there is little inter-group organization. As the practice of civil disobedience develops online, those who favor different styles of activism but who are united in a common cause should organize themselves into affinity-based coalitions, building alliances for more effective activism. Effective digitally based civil disobedience needs a diverse, integrated repertoire of contention from which to draw. A disruptive action targeting Facebook could drive users toward alternate, more open, social networking services. A leak detailing government intelligence abuses could spur disruptive protests, consumer flight to uncompromised services, or further leaks.

As digital activism develops, civil disobedience will continue to a be vital tool for expressing dissent. The tactics and strategies of Disruption, Information Distribution, and Infrastructure provide many avenues for activists for activists to work together in concerted, effective campaigns. The Internet offers the unique opportunity to organize across geography, allowing for the creation of robust global affinity groups. To be the most effective, digital activists need to work together across the lines of tactics and strategy. The future of digital civil disobedience lies in inter-group, cross-border cooperation that combines the tactics and strategies of Disruption, Information Distribution, and Infrastructure-based activism.


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December 10, 2013


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