Computers. Some of us swear by them. Others against them. But whether you're for or against computers, they aren't likely to go away any time soon. The opposite is true. Computers are being woven into the fabric of society at an astonishing rate. They are fast becoming part of nearly everyone's daily reality. It is almost impossible to function today without being touched by the computer. But even if we somehow manage to live far from computerized society, our political opponents, like the federal government and giant corporations, depend heavily on computers. Given increasing computer prevalence and the fact our political opponents are among the most wired in the world, it is foolish to ignore the computer. Rather, it is important to turn our attention toward the computer, to understand it, and to transform it into an instrument of resistance. For the luddites of the world who resist computers, consider using computers to resist.
Until recently most radical computer use has been confined to communicating messages on the Internet. Beginning in the 1980s social movements began to engage in computer-mediated political communication. Today email-based political communication, supplemented by texts, sounds, and images posted on interconnected web sites, represents the bulk of communicative computer use by radical social movements around the world. The experience of the global pro-Zapatista movement perfectly exemplifies these email and web site forms of international political communication on the Internet. Immediately following the January 1, 1994, Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, EZLN communiques began to appear on email listservs all over the world. This rapid widespread dispersal of these communiques and other information, and the subsequent establishment of intercontinental networks of solidarity and resistance, accounts for part of the reason why the Zapatistas survive.
In the 1980s we saw the emergence of the computer hacker. These were people skilled in deep programming with the technical knowledge to break into computer systems in order to disrupt, remove, or destroy information. Early hackers were seduced by the pure joy of figuring out ways to hack Department of Defense computers, banks, or other large-scale computer dependent institutions that maintained massive databases. Some young hackers later turned corporate, applying their sharply honed skills as security specialists. But other early hackers, the first generation, are still around and active. Moreover, there is a second generation of hackers in the 1990s. While all hackers are clearly not adverse to transgressing the boundary between the legal and the illegal, not all hackers are political. But today, the politicized hacker is clearly a growing subset of the larger hacker world.
Today we are witness to a convergence of the computerized activist and the politicized hacker. This coming together of forces will open up unforeseen doors and possibilities. As a way to envision what this hybridized activist-hacker might engage in, it is instructive to borrow the metaphor of civil disobedience with its tactics of trespass and blockade. When we apply this metaphor to the electronic networks - to cyberspace - we imagine Electronic Civil Disobedience.
At the beginning of April, the Los Angeles based National Commission for Democracy in Mexico called for protests at Mexican consulates on April 10 to coincide with major mobilizations in Mexico City. Soon thereafter, the New York Zapatistas called for protest at the Mexican consulate in Manhattan, but also endorsed a call for Electronic Civil Disobedience for April 10. News of this moved swiftly across the Net. Evolving from this, there is now a call for a World Wide Web of Electronic Civil Disobedience on May 10 to Stop the War in Chiapas.
Just as people may physically trespass upon real property, people may trespass upon virtual property on the Net. Just as people may blockade entranceways to buildings, offices, or factories, people may blockade entranceways to portals in cyberspace, to the doors and bridges that allow entrance and egress from corporate or governmental computer systems. This level of cyber-activism is still in its incubation period. While radical social movements have used email for the last 10 years and web site based communication for almost 5 years, the strategies and tactics of disrupting the electronic fabric are still being developed. Even though hacking capability has existed since the 1980s, it is only recently that we are seeing a confluence of the politicized hacker and the computerized activist.
Beta actions of Electronic Civil Disobedience already occurred earlier this year. Following the Acteal Massacre of 45 indigenous people in Chiapas, Mexico, in late December, 1997, there was a global upsurge condemning these atrocities. Information about the massacre and announcements of Mexican consulate and embassy protests was transmitted over the Net. The largest response was in the form of physical street protest, drawing crowds of between 5,000 and 10,000 in places like Spain and Italy. But there were also calls for actions in cyberspace. On the low end of cyber-activism people sent large amounts of email to selected email targets. In some of these instances, the intent may only have been to deliver a powerful message. But if pushed to its limits, massive amounts of email may cause system overload.
In January, the Anonymous Digital Coalition issued a plan for virtual sit-ins on five web sites of Mexico City financial corporations. They issued information about the time zones so people could act together when it was 10:00 a.m. in Mexico City. They instructed people to use their Internet browsers to repeatedly reload the web sites of these financial institutions. This means they asked many people to repeatedly strike keys on their keyboards. If many people together send a reload request to a web site it can effectively blockade access to others. The site becomes overloaded with requests. There are indications this method in the above example has worked.
Building on this relatively unsophisticated method of repeated simultaneous multiple key striking, software has emerged that automates this action. These small programs are called ping engines. They are basically small looped programs that impart the same instructions repeatedly. Ping engines simulate the acts of repeated simultaneous multiple key striking. Pinging some sites may have relatively little impact, especially sites that don't get much traffic. But pinging, and hence blocking, highly trafficked sites that contain "useful" information may cause a greater disturbance.
Another engine is the offshore spam engine, a form-driven web site based in another country that enables a user to automatically distribute massive quantities of email to particular email addresses. One problem associated with the offshore spam engine is that once a targeted email address becomes self aware of an email onslaught, their cyber security teams can put up barriers.
Besides devices that act upon the entranceways, deep programmers are now developing intelligent agents that can crawl through a web site. A certain type of intelligent agent is called a spider. Good spiders are designed to crawl quickly through web sites in search of pertinent information. But bad spiders are being designed to crawl very slowly with the intent of causing a disruption.
Issues of personal security arise when considering tactics that go beyond sending messages with political content to an adversary, i.e. when the message form becomes a disruptive instrument. It is not illegal to send letters expressing dissent to governmental or corporate email addresses. But questions of legality emerge with the application of more sophisticated techniques that automate multiple dispersion of electronic signals that cause an electronic disturbance. The higher one is on the tactical scale the more crucial it is to mask identities and to not leave traces of actions. Having several different free email accounts under assumed names is one way to accomplish this goal. A number of web sites now offer free email accounts where anonymity is possible. Ultimately, though, the most sophisticated computer tactics must be left to the politicized hackers. Serious hacks are their domain.
Given that this politicized hacker/computerized activist hybridization is still in its incunabular period, we can only expect that now sophisticated tactics like ping engines, spiders, and off-shore spam engines are early prototypes of more to come. While these types of computerized tactics come out of people's experience within the context of the global pro-Zapatista movement, other radical social movements are also showing signs of being receptive to these new cybernetic direct action tactics. Urbanized environmental movements, like the efforts of the Lower East Side Collective in Manhattan to save community gardens from city encroachment, have started to go on-line using their computers and modems to send fax jams to New York City government offices.
There must be now thousands of activists throughout the world who are autonomously and independently coming to similar conclusions about how we can use computers to take political action that goes beyond political communication. While valid arguments can be raised against the computer, and against the technological society that the computer engenders, it is foolish to turn ones back on that machine, when that machine offers possibilities for resistance to the very society which created it. Those already convinced of the efficacy of computers for political action should continue. Those with critical stances toward computers should take a second look and consider how computers might be used as instruments for committing widespread massive electronic civil disobedience against the corporate, governmental, and financial institutions currently responsible for destruction of life on this planet.
(Stefan Wray is doctoral student at New
York University. He organized a panel on Electronic Civil Disobedience
for the Socialist Scholars Conference
in March in New York. He will present a paper on this subject in June at
the Union for Democratic Communications Conference
in San Francisco. Also in June he will be part of a workshop on Electronic
Civil Disobedience at the Grassroots
News and Media Conference & Culture Jam in Austin, Texas.)
Some Internet resources:
On Electronic Civil Disobedience
Electronic Civil Disobedience Homepage
Call for Electronic Civil Disobedience on April 10
World Wide Web of Electronic Civil Disobedience on May 10
The Drug War
and Information Warfare in Mexico