New tools of dissent in the internet age

The always provocative Evgeny Morozov writes in Foreign Policy about the politics and ethics of online dissent in the form of civil disobedience. What are the limits? And why is it so different from the real world?

This is the post-Wikileaks new paradigm:

First – and I briefly touched upon this subject in my previous post – some Internet experts fear that participating in DDoS attacks, even if one has morally justifiable reasons for doing so, might make DDoS a more acceptable form of silencing dissent. As such, anyone participating in DDoS – even if they have perfectly good reasons for doing so – should first consider the indirect consequences of popularizing DDoS as a tactic. (I have written about DDoS as a new censorship mechanism on numerous occasions – see, for example, the story of the Georgian blogger Cyxymu.)

Let’s leave philosophy aside for a moment and just use some common sense. Would we advise anyone participating in lunch-counter sit-ins during the civil rights era not to do it because it may popularize sit-ins as a tactic that might be abused by all sorts of crazy people and criminals? I don’t think so: just because one can organize a sit-in to block an entrance to the offices of ACLU to protest their defense of civil liberties would hardly be a factor in deciding whether to block an entrance to the offices of the Department of Defense to protest a war.

Why is DDoS different? Arguably, physical civil disobedience is often much easier to conduct than its virtual counterpart: having 100 people show up and block entrance to Amazon’s offices, on average, is far more effective than having the same 100 people launch DDoS attacks on its web-site. Sure, there are oddballs like Jester, who claims to have taken the entire WikiLeaks with a solo DoS attack; but such people are not exactly missing from the offline domain. Cindy Sheehan has been quite effective acting solo – is it a reason to impose a moratorium on acts of civil disobedience? I don’t think so.

I think that those who worry about the adverse effects of popularizing DDoS as a tactic misunderstand what civil disobedience is (moreover, I’m not sure they understand the distinction between its direct and indirect varieties). Civil disobedience involves breaches of law by definition; anyone lamenting the popularization of DDoS as a tactic is only lamenting the fact that those practicing it would violate the rule of law. But what such critics do not seem to understand is that for a breach of law to count as civil disobedience its perpetrators should be willing to accept the consequences, get arrested and serve jail time if this if what the law demands. Submitting oneself to the rule of law after breaching it is the compensatory act that makes such acts morally permissible.

hose who oppose DDoS on the grounds that it will popularize DDos as a tactic are essentially saying: don’t breach the rule of law because it would lead others to breach the rule of law. Note that such a position leaves no space to comment on whether the laws that are being breached are unjust to begin with or, in case the laws are, indeed, just, whether violating them may be a morally permissible way to right other wrongs (i.e. engage indirect civil disobedience).