A basic premise of a democratic society gives its citizens rights to participate in debate and effect change by taking to the streets to demonstrate. In the U.S., this is enshrined in the Bill of Rights under the First Amendment.
But what happens when we all effectively live, work, shop, date, bank and get into political debates online? Because online, as Molly Sauter points out in her book The Coming Swarm, there are no streets on which to march. “Because of the densely intertwined nature of property and speech in the online space, unwelcome acts of collective protest become also acts of trespass.”
Sauter argues that distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks are a legitimate form of protest. Or at least one that needs to be examined in a larger context of lawful activism, rather than hastily and disastrously criminalized under the Patriot Act.
Sauter is currently doing her Ph.D. at McGill University in Montreal after completing her Masters at MIT. Prior to attending MIT she worked as a researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. So she’s been thinking about civil disobedience and digital culture for a while, although she admitting during a recent phone interview that “adapting and re-writing a Masters thesis into a book during the first year of doctorate study is not recommended.”
As Sauter examines in The Coming Swarm, DDoS campaigns are not new. In fact they’ve been used for almost 20 years in support of various political movements from pro-Zapatista mobilization to immigration policy in Germany and, most notably, at 2010 G20 in Toronto.
“Guiding this work is the overarching question of how civil disobedience and disruptive activism can be practiced in the current online space,” she told PCMag. “Actions that take place in the online sphere can only ever infringe on privately held property. The architecture of the network does not, as of yet, support spaces held in common.”
The book also delves into extensive technical discussion on the evolution of simple denial-of-service attacks, where a single computer and Internet connection breaches a firewall, floods a server with packets, and overloads the system so that it malfunctions and shuts down.
According to Sauter, it was the switch to distributed denial-of-service attacks that really got the authorities’ attention. Mainly because the distributed nature of attack, using zombie machines to hide the original source of the activists’ IP addresses and often effect malware, made detection almost impossible. It was then that the nature of digital debate was re-framed as a criminal act rather than civil disobedience.