Social Media Week: WikiLeaks and Online Civil Disobedience

Distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks were the hot topic at WikiLeaks and Online Civil Disobedience, a Social Media Week New York panel hosted by the Personal Democracy Forum and moderated by its editor and curator, Micah Sifry.

Speakers at the event, in order, were Deanna Zandt, author of Share This: How You Will Change the World with Social Networking; Evgeny Morozov, author of new book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom; and John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The event was held at Hearst’s Art & Culture Hub in Manhattan.

Zandt made it a point to differentiate between DDoS attacks and hacking, saying, “Denial-of-service attacks are not hacking. Hacking tends to be where systems are broken into and data are compromised. None of the business data or practices was compromised in any way. I do feel that DDOS is a civil form of disobedience.”

Speaking specifically about Anonymous, the group responsible for attacking several corporate Web sites in defense of WikiLeaks, she said, “In the past, Anonymous hasn’t done anything in this scale that was explicitly, overtly, hugely political,” adding that the group was made up of “chaos enthusiasts — they’re interested in the drama of chaos unfolding. It’s not as if there was this sleeper cell of people who were ready to attack this big, bad corporation.”

On digital activism in general, Zandt concluded, “I’m often very, very frustrated with what the face of actual digital activism looks like. We have the ability and the freedom to risk ourselves for the benefit of many who don’t. We can’t ultimately rely on these digital tools to do our dirty work. If governments and corporations can easily collude to disable our ability to communicate with one another, what is our response?”

Morozov said he had mixed feelings about DDoS attacks, pointing out that in many cases, governments “outsource some of this work to youth movements.” He also pointed out the ease of committing these acts, saying, “The fact that Anonymous was so successful in doing what they did in part reflects the ease of launching such attacks.”

He spent most of his time talking about the punishments that should be meted out, saying, “The fact that something is legitimate doesn’t necessarily mean that it is legal. In the case of DDoS, they were done illegally. People who engage in such acts need to base their acts on certain moral principles. They’re not just acting out of the blue. They need to be prepared to go to jail. That’s what happens when people participate in sit-ins. That criterion wasn’t really met in the case of what happened with Anonymous. The very name Anonymous suggests that they don’t want to be public.”

Last up was Barlow, who said of his 15-year-old manifesto, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, “If you’re going to write a manifesto that ends up being cited for 15 years all over the Internet, it’s best not to imitate the style of Thomas Jefferson or anybody else from the 18th century. It’s probably best not to do it while drinking, which I definitely was.”

On government’s role in the process, he added, “I will stand with my earlier proposition that sovereignty is not that easy for a physical world government to impose on the virtual, unless you’re willing to do something as extravagant as the Egyptian government just did when they shut down the Internet in Egypt, and they found that they hurt themselves more than the opposition.”

Finally, on why he became the EFF’s co-founder, Barlow said, “The objective was to get the United States government to recognize that the Bill of Rights applied to the Internet as much as it did to other means of communication,” but he added that the Bill of Rights only applied locally and did not cover a global communications network.