On Electronic Civil Disobedience

by Stefan Wray

Paper presented to the
1998 Socialist Scholars Conference
March 20, 21, and 22
New York, NY

Civil disobedience has been part of the American political experience since the inception of this country. But today, as we enter the next century, we are faced with the possibilities and realities of different, hybrid, electronic forms of civil disobedience. A fusion of computer technology with the more traditional forms of American civil disobedience has created new electronic and digital varieties of CD that take place in cyberspace, on the Net, or in the matrix.

The term electronic civil disobedience is borrowed from a book by that same name. The Critical Art Ensemble’s (1996) Electronic Civil Disobedience provides us with a useful benchmark or launch pad from where we can travel back to the historical practice of civil disobedience in the United States and travel forward to the imagined practice of civil disobedience in the near future. One thing is certain, we have only begun to realize the full potential of how computers will change political activism. Another thing is also clear; electronic civil disobedience will be part of this trajectory.

One hundred and fifty years ago, in 1848, the same year that the Communist Manifesto was published in Europe, Henry David Thoreau lecture titled “Resistance to Civil Government” was published as an essay called “Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience emerged from his own personal refusal to pay a poll tax as an expression of his opposition to the United States’ war against Mexico. (Thoreau 1968) Since Thoreau’s time the tactics of civil disobedience have become woven into the fabric of dissent in this country, as individuals at the grassroots have continually attempted to participate in civil society.

Thirty years ago, in 1968, evolving out of the experience of activists in the Civil Rights movement, civil disobedience became an important and widespread tactic used by the opposition to yet another imperialist war, the United States’ war against Vietnam. In 1971, as historian Howard Zinn describes, “twenty thousand people came to Washington to commit civil disobedience, trying to tie up Washington traffic to express their revulsion against the killing still going on in Vietnam. Fourteen thousand of them were arrested, the largest mass arrest in American history.” (Zinn 1995, 477)

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the tactics of civil disobedience and direct action were taken up by a number of social movements. The anti-nuclear movement began to engage in mass civil disobedience starting in the mid 1970s - with large arrests at the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in New Hampshire - and continued using this tactic through to the end of the 1980s - with mass arrests at the Nuclear Test Site near Las Vegas, Nevada.

In the 1980s, the radical wing of the environmental movement, represented by groups like Earth First!, reinterpreted notions of civil disobedience in order to apply these tactics to rural and isolated settings where old growth forests were being devastated. Thoreau’s ideas were brought to life again by authors like Edward Abbey, who paid him homage in an essay called Down The River with Henry Thoreau. (Abbey 1981)

Other radical groups, like ACT UP, made sure that civil disobedience maintained an urban presence. Using shock tactics, such as forcing ones way onto the set of a live national news broadcast, ACT UP activists pushed civil disobedience more in the direction of in-your-face politics as a way to emphasize the urgency of the AIDS crisis.

In an odd twist of irony, by the late 1980s and more so in the early 1990s, even groups on the right began to adopt tactics of trespass and blockade. The so-called “pro-life” movement started to physically block abortion clinics.

At the beginning of the 1990s, the Gulf War - or more appropriately the U.S. war against Iraq - was yet another moment in which opposition was expressed in acts of individual, small group, and mass civil disobedience. In the fall of 1990, a small group of 14 anti-Gulf War activists, mostly students from U.C. Berkeley and San Francisco State, occupied and held for several hours an Army Recruiting Center in San Francisco before being arrested. Also that fall, an adhoc coalition opposed to the war, called the Bay Area Direct Action Network, began to strategize about different ways to block building entranceways and highways. When the United States started to drop its “smart bombs” on Baghdad tens of thousands of people poured into the streets of San Francisco.

One notable action at this time was the occupation and blockage of the Bay Bridge that connects San Francisco to Oakland and Berkeley. Following a physical blockade that delayed the opening of the U.S. Federal Building in San Francisco, thousands of protesters started to march downtown toward the financial district. At the last minute, these protesters turned, took another route, and easily pushed pass the dozen or so Highway Patrol attempting to protect the bridge. This throng of people made it nearly all the way to Treasure Island, the mid-way point on the bridge, before being met with a massive show of force by the Oakland Police Department. While unreported by the mainstream media, similar acts of blocking government buildings and major highways occurred all up and down the west coast.

So, over the course of the last 150 years, since the publication of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, we have seen the tactics of individual, group, and mass civil disobedience applied to varying degrees by a quite a number of social movements in the United States. In the second half of the twentieth century, civil disobedience has been practiced in every decade. Sometimes it has been successful. Other times it has failed. Given that the objective realities of U.S. society are not likely to alter radically any time soon, we can safely assume that radical social movements, in one form or another, will continue to adopt the strategies and tactics of civil disobedience into the 21st century.

But, in the next century, most of us will witness, and some of us will perhaps directly experience, a striking difference in the form and manner of civil disobedience. Unlike in Thoreau’s time, when the telegraph had barely gotten off the ground, and even unlike during the tumultuous 1960s, when the Vietnam War was televised - but when computers were still monster-sized machines off limits to most people - we, today, live in the age of the personal computer. We live in a computer-based information age.

As hackers become politicized and as activists become computerized, we are going to see an increase in the number of cyber-activists who engage in what will become more widely known as Electronic Civil Disobedience. The same principals of traditional civil disobedience, like trespass and blockage, will still be applied, but more and more these acts will take place in electronic or digital form. The primary site for Electronic Civil Disobedience will be in cyberspace.

In the next century, for example, we on the left will witness or be part of an increasing number of virtual sit-ins in which government and corporate web sites are blocked, preventing so-called legitimate usage. Just as the Vietnam War and the Gulf War brought thousands into the streets to disrupt the flow of normal business and governance - acting upon the physical infrastructure - future interventionist wars will be protested by the clogging or actual rupture of fiber optic cables and ISDN lines - acting upon the electronic and communications infrastructure. Just as massive non-violent civil disobedience has been used to shutdown or suspend governmental or corporate operations, massive non-violent email assaults will shutdown government or corporate computer servers. Given the expected continued rapid growth and development of computer technology, and given the increasing knowledge, sophistication, and expertise of a growing body of cyber-activists, there is no telling exactly how electronic civil disobedience will play itself out in the future. But we can be certain that electronic civil disobedience will undoubtedly become an important element in the emergence of new radical social movements in the years ahead.

There are already examples now in existence of the theory and the practice of electronic civil disobedience, as well as evidence of government and corporate awareness of the potential threat posed by sophisticated cyber-activism.

To gain some understanding of emerging theory on Electronic Civil Disobedience it is probably best to first look at several short pieces by the Critical Art Ensemble. In 1994 the Critical Art Ensemble produced a work called The Electronic Disturbance and in 1996 they produced a sequel called, not surprisingly, Electronic Civil Disobedience. Both works argue that capitalism has become increasingly nomadic, mobile, liquid, dispersed, and electronic. Moreover, they argue that resistance needs to take on these very same attributes. Instead of physically blocking a building entranceway, or occupying a CEO’s office, Critical Art Ensemble argues that we need to think about how we can blockade and trespass in digital and electronic forms.

Not only do these works by the Critical Art Ensemble begin to establish a language with which we can develop ideas about and continue to practice electronic civil disobedience, they also make a case that practicing electronic civil disobedience has become imperative because increasingly traditional forms of CD have become less and less effective. They argue that the streets have become the location of dead capital and that to seriously confront capital in its current mobile electronic form, then resistance must take place in the same location where capital now exists in greatest concentrations, namely in cyberspace. While the second part of the Critical Art Ensemble’s argument makes sense, the statement that the streets are completely useless needs to be qualified. For example, we can not discount the role that street protest played in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This adds credence to the notion that rather than pure electronic civil disobedience, we are likely to see a proliferation of hybridized actions that involve a multiplicity of tactics, combining actions on the street and actions in cyberspace.

The intellectual roots of the Critical Art Ensemble’s work, especially in relation to their nomadic conceptions of capital and resistance, can be first traced to Hakim Bey’s (1991) T. A. Z. The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism, who in turn borrows ideas about nomadology from Gilles Deleuze’s and Felix Guattari’s (1987) A Thousand Plateaus. Bey’s temporary - and nomadic -  autonomous zones, existing in cyberspace, become the launch pads from where electronic civil disobedience is activated. The influence of A Thousand Plateaus, especially the chapter called “Treatise on Nomadology and the War Machine,” can be seen running throughout the Critical Art Ensemble’s work. All of these works just mentioned should be required reading for the serious student and practitioner of electronic civil disobedience.

Besides examining hypothetical ideas in these theoretical works, we can actually see that incipient electronic civil disobedience has started to be practiced. One site for discovering such practice is within the global pro-Zapatista movement that has come into being since the January 1, 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico. Since just days after the emergence of the EZLN onto the global political scene, computers, and more specifically, computer-based communication over the Internet, primarily and originally in the form of email, have become key and central to the existence of this global Zapatista inspired movement against neoliberalism and for humanity. With each passing year, since 1994, the level of computer sophistication has increased. What began as mere transmission of EZLN communiques and other information via email became also a network of hypertext linked web sites. In borrowing another term from Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus - in addition to nomadic - the movement of information through these various cyber-nets of resistance has been said to have occurred rhizomatically, moving horizontally, non-linearly, and underground.

Rhizome is word that comes from botany and is used to describe certain types of tubers, that as a system of roots expands horizontally and underground. The adjective rhizomatic have been used in a political context as a way to describe the distribution, spread, and dispersion of information on the Net about the Zapatistas. Rather than operating through a central command structure in which information filters down from the top in a vertical and linear manner - the model of radio and television broadcasting - information about the Zapatistas on the Net has been said to be moving from node to node, horizontally and non-linearly. This is relevant in that the method of announcing and distributing information about electronic civil disobedience actions has occurred in this rhizomatic fashion.

For example, arising out of this increased cyber-activism around the Zapatistas, and following the recent Acteal Massacre that took place in Chiapas just this past December, a group calling themselves the Anonymous Digital Coalition, which we believe originated in Italy, began to post messages onto the Net calling for cyber attacks against five Mexico City based financial institution’s web sites. The intent of their plan, which was promulgated far and wide via this rhizomatic system of distribution, was for thousands of people around the world to simultaneously load these web sites on to their Internet browsers. The idea was that repeated reloading of the web sites on to numerous people’s browsers would in effect block those web sites from so called legitimate use. The only evidence available to me that this action worked is an email message I received from someone who said that they made repeated attempts to access these sites during the aforementioned time, but could not do so.

Another example is even more recent. Last month, when it looked as if the United States was going to launch another bombing campaign against Iraq, a national news story appeared describing how the Pentagon had allegedly noticed an increase in the number of hacking attempts into Department of Defense computers. Whether these cyber assaults are real or a figment of the Pentagon’s imagination is irrelevant. The point is that this level of cyber-activism directed against a government institution is yet another potential scenario that we will in the future either be witnesses to or participants in.

As is to be expected, the roots of future government crackdowns against electronic civil disobedience already exist in the present. Since as early as 1993 there were warnings coming from RAND of impending netwar (Arquilla and Ronfeldt 1993). Soon thereafter, the U.S. military establishment began to worry about netwar or its more universal term, information warfare. In 1996, The Nation published an article describing a report produced by the Pentagon’s office on Special Operations Forces in which they make recommendations to counter or contain possible netwar or information warfare.

But as attempts to prevent people from engaging in traditional civil disobedience have failed before or have at least not been universally successful, we can expect that whatever net the government creates in attempts to capture future cyber-activists will be strewn with holes and ways of evasion will be possible. One possible technical solution that will enable cyber-activists to flood government or corporate email servers - potentially to the point of these servers crashing - is the off-shore spam engine, a web-site form-based means of directing multiple email messages to targeted email addresses, anonymously.

To conclude. While it may be partially true, as the Critical Art Ensemble claims, that participation in street actions has become increasingly meaningless and futile and that future resistance must become primarily nomadic, electronic, and cyberspacial, it is doubtful that physical street actions, involving real people on the ground, will end any time soon. What is more likely is that we will see electronic civil disobedience continue to be phased in as a component of or as a complement to traditional civil disobedience. In the near future, we can expect to see hybrid civil disobedience actions that will involve people taking part in electronic civil disobedience from behind their computer screens while simultaneously people are engaging in more traditional forms of civil disobedience out in the streets.

As we consider the trajectory of resistance in the United States and as we envision the possibilities of resistance increasingly taking place in cyberspace, it is important to remember that civil disobedience has been an important part of the history of political growth and change in this country. Thoreau’s contribution, by example and by word, influenced generations that followed. But today, we stand at a new crossroads, one in which these older forms of resistance and protest are being transformed. While it is useful to consider the path that civil disobedience has taken up until now, we also need to be aware that our political terrain is changing dramatically. In the 21st century, electronic civil disobedience will occur.

(Stefan Wray is a doctoral student in the Department of Culture and Communication at NYU. His dissertation research focuses on international grassroots political communication on the Internet. He received an M.A. in Journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. His masters thesis, “The Drug War and Information Warfare in Mexico” is available at http://www.nyu.edu/projects/wray/ You can send email to him at: sjw210@is8.nyu.edu)



Abbey, Edward. 1991. Down The River. New York: Plume.

Arquilla, John and David Ronfeldt. 1993. "Cyberwar is Coming!" Comparative  Strategy 12: 141-65.

Bey, Hakim. 1991. T. A. Z. The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia.

Corn, David. 1996. “Pentagon Trolls the Net.” The Nation, 4 March.

Critical Art Ensemble. 1994. The Electronic Disturbance. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia.

Critical Art Ensemble. 1996. Electronic Civil Disobedience and Other Unpopular Ideas. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. by Brain Massumi. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press.

Thoreau, Henry David. 1968. The variorum Walden and the variorum Civil disobedience. New York: Washington Square Press.

Zinn, Howard. 1995. A People’s History of the United States. 1492- Present. New York: Harper Perennial.

Electronic Civil Disobedience