On a cold morning in February, 1989 the telephone woke me at dawn with the news of a denial of service attack on the newspaper I worked for as deputy editor. Here's how that particular DoS worked, in technical terms for all you geeks out there:
Two men threw a pair of Molotov cocktails through the front windows of The Riverdale Press in the Bronx, gutting the newspaper's editorial offices and shutting down the building for five months.
Those men, like the group that declares it is defending Wikileaks and its leader Julian Assange, were anonymous. And like the anonymous attackers of Amazon, Visa, MasterCard and PayPal, they were attempting to silence without consent or recourse the commercial speech of an institution they disagreed strongly with. They believed their cause was a just one, based upon a gross and unlawful insult, as well as their deeply-held beliefs.
In their case, it was the strong conviction that author Salman Rushdie should die for the religious blasphemy in The Satanic Verses, and that a newspaper that defended Rushdie's First Amendment rights in the United States to sell his book in any bookstore in the land must be silenced and shuttered. Who can doubt that these men (never caught) believed their cause was a just one, and that The Riverdale Press deserved to lose its editorial voice using the most expedient technology available (firebombs)?
Who can doubt that the Anonymous hackers and their supporters believe they are the righteous actors in today's battle over Wikileaks and free speech? They are every bit as certain of their cause as the men who blew up a Bronx newspaper. Yet an action that attacks the rights of self expression of others (in this case, commercial entities, like bookstores and credit card companies and newspapers) surely cannot serve, in any creditable way, to defend free speech.
On Saturday, I was privileged to take part in a "flash conference" in New York organized by the Personal Democracy Forum and its founders Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry. The discussion on press freedom, speech, distribution and modern power was far-ranging, respectful and deeply engaging. (Full video of the conference is here). I reitered my position that Wikileaks is anti-democratic and deserving of deep skepticism for its motives and structure; indeed, I was pleased to hear plenty of skepticism from my fellow panelists and the rather vocal audience. I also found myself agreeing that a distributed online outlet for whistleblowers - really a network of outlets - needs to be created and protected. And it needs to be transparent, in both governance and funding.
But I also heard a troubling idea resurfacing amidst the polite discourse: the position that a distributed denial of service attack is a form of accepted civil disobediance, that DDoS is merely a digital sit-in, the moral equivalent of lunch-counter volunteers in the south during civil rights. Nothing gets permanently broken, no long-term harm is done, and a political point is made - and all from the comfort of your keyboard, safely outside the reach of the big powers that be. At least, so the argument goes.
I strongly disagree, for two reasons:
1. Easy anonymity lacks courage and obscures ideas
Sure, it's easy to see how the Amazons and the MasterCards can lose an hour or ten of business and keep right on making money. It's fun and easy to sign up, run the software, and smash the heck out of a few servers for a while - then sit back and watch the fun on Twitter. Look at me, I'm walkin' across the Edmund Pettis bridge (and putting away a few zombies on XBox too).
The point of civil disobedience is the public act; the point of protest is the message. It takes courage to stand up against the powerful, and it takes commitment to speak. The great historic names of civil disobedience carry an emotional impact for a reason. We know about the sit-ins, the marches, and the many years on Robben Island. Those acts carry power because of their public quality. It's not a question of legality. Throughout the world, many forms of speech or public congregation will get you jailed or killed.
In her post defending DDoS as civil disobedience, the author Deanna Zandt asks the question: "how do I digitally throw myself in front of a tank?" My answer is simple: by using your real name in broad digital daylight, and by saying what you think.
2. You don't stand up for free speech by using a muzzle
Amazon was down in the UK today, ostensibly in revenge for the incarceration of Assange on Swedish sexual assault charges and Amazon's refusal to host WikiLeaks after its release of the State Department cables. That means you couldn't purchase The Satanic Verses for a time - or my book, or any of the books written by the authors who spoke at #pdfleaks Saturday, or A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It's hard to make a less-convincing defense of free speech (or damage Wikileaks more by association) than to strike down someone else's speech. While it's fascinating to follow the discussion of legitimacy and DDoS, ultimately I agree with Micah's post on techPresident:
I believe nonviolent civil disobedience is a very powerful weapon and generally support people who try to practice it. But I am not sure that it is at all wise to go try to defend free speech by suppressing other people's speech, which is what a DDOS attack does to the target.
Jeff Jarvis, who handled audience participation with skill at the PDF confab, posted a follow-up to the conference that laid out an amended version of his "Bill of Rights in Cyberspace" - there are lots of good arguments to be had there, but I cannot disagree in any way with the first two:
I. We have the right to connect.
II. We have the right to speak freely.
Cutting that right to connect - and quashing speech - through denial of service smacks of a secretive cyber warfare. (It's the flipside of the unfortunate reliance most of us have on commericial services like Facebook and Twitter, which could shut down out social graphs in a second if they choose to..a topic for another post). Today, Amazon and PayPal - tomorrow the website of the Personal Democracy Forum or Typepad, which hosts this blog. They're commercial entitities too and you might not like them.
"We can build new systems of human relations which depend not on secrecy but on connectivity," writes Mark Pesce in his incisive post on "hyperdemocracy" and the new press. And we can root for connectivity to win over secrecy in places like Burma, Iran and North Korea - as well as Wall Street, the State Department, and local government. That secrecy should be banished as well from the movement that supports ironclad free speech and radical transparency. And to me at least, denying Internet speech to anyone is a bad tactic - and even worse ethics.
UPDATE: Amazon's outage in Europe was due to a "hardware failure" and not a DDOS attack, reports Reuters. The report also says that Anonymous has "changed its strategy and would now focus on spreading snippets of the leaked cables far and wide rather than on cyber attacks." Glad to see that path leading away from denial of speech.