The Electronic Disturbance Theater

and Electronic Civil Disobedience

by Stefan Wray on June 17, 1998 

The Electronic Disturbance Theater

    The Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT) is a small group of cyber activists and artists engaged in developing the theory and practice of Electronic Civil Disobedience (ECD). Until now the group has focused its electronic actions against the Mexican and U.S. governments to draw attention to the war being waged against the Zapatistas and others in Mexico. But ECD tactics have potential application by a range of political and artistic movements. The Electronic Disturbance Theater, working at the intersections of radical politics, recombinant and performance art, and computer software design, has produced an ECD device called Flood Net, URL based software used to flood and block an opponent’s web site. While at present a catalyst for moving forward with ECD tactics, the Electronic Disturbance Theater hopes to eventually blend into the background to become one of many small autonomous groups heightening and enhancing the ways and means of computerized resistance.

Electronic Civil Disobedience (see longer article)

    Acting in the tradition of non-violent direct action and civil disobedience, proponents of Electronic Civil Disobedience are borrowing the tactics of trespass and blockade from these earlier social movements and are applying them to the Internet. A typical civil disobedience tactic has been for a group of people to physically blockade, with their bodies, the entranceways of an opponent’s office or building or to physically occupy an opponent’s office – to have a sit-in. Electronic Civil Disobedience, as a form of mass decentered electronic direct action, utilizes virtual blockades and virtual sit-ins. Unlike the participant in a traditional civil disobedience action, an ECD actor can participate in virtual blockades and sit-ins from home, from work, from the university, or from other points of access to the Net. Further, the ECD actor can act against an opponent that is hundreds if not thousands of miles away. The Electronic Disturbance Theater, primarily through its Flood Net device, is promoting ways to engage in global, mass, collective and simultaneous Electronic Civil Disobedience and direct action.

Digital Zapatismo (see longer article)

    The Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, immediately entered the global stage just after January 1, 1994 when their communiques signed by Subcommandante Marcos were distributed across the world through the Net. Quickly, through pre-existing and newly formed listservs, newsgroups, and Cc: lists, news, reports, analyses, announcements about demonstrations, and calls for intercontinental gatherings spread throughout the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. We began to hear the Zapatistas use the terms intercontinental “networks of struggle” and “networks of resistance.” This new media, the Internet, became a vital means for the transmission of information from inside the conflict zone in Chiapas to other points of resistance in Mexico and to points beyond Mexico’s physical borders. Until recently the primary use of the Internet by the global pro-Zapatista movement has been as a communication tool. However, in recent times, particularly since the Acteal Massacre in Chiapas at the end of last year, the Internet has increasingly been seen as not only a site or a channel for communication, but also as a site for direct action and a site for Electronic Civil Disobedience. The Electronic Disturbance Theater, through its promotion of ECD tactics vis a vis the pro-Zapatista movement, is pushing the envelope and is challenging the notion that the Internet should be safeguarded solely as a site for communication; it should be a site for direct action as well.

Flood Net

    In January of this year, a group from Italy, the Anonymous Digital Coalition, circulated a proposal through the Zapatista networks for a virtual sit-in to take place on five web sites of Mexico City financial institutions. Their suggested method was for many people to be simultaneously, and note manually, striking the reload key of the targeted web sites on the theory that if enough people participated in this action, that these web sites could be effectively blockaded. Based on this theory of simultaneous and collective, yet decentered, electronic action against a targeted web site, the group that became the Electronic Disturbance Theater automated the process of manually striking the reload key repeatedly. On April 10, Flood Net Tactical Version 1.0 was showcased during a dress rehearsal action of Electronic Civil Disobedience against Mexican President Zedillo’s web site. As a Java applet reload function, the first test of Flood Net sent an automated reload request every seven seconds to Zedillo’s page. Reports from participants and our observations confirmed that the more than 8,000 participants in this first Flood Net action intermittently blocked access to the Zedillo site on that day. The next site for electronic action was the Clinton White House web site on May 10. A similar Flood Net device was deployed. Instead of reload requests being sent every 7 seconds that figure was cut to every 3. But due to using 5 mirror sites, most of which did not have counters on them, we do not have an accurate account of the participant’s numbers. And due to lack of reports about White House web site blockage and an assumption that the White House page exists on a much larger computer than the Zedillo page, it seems that the Clinton web site was not effectively blocked on May 10.

Mexico Government Strikes Back

    To protest the increased deportation of international human rights observers and to again demonstrate the ability of people physically outside Mexico’s geographic borders to act against an agency of the Mexican government, the Electronic Disturbance Theater chose Mexico’s Secretaria de Gobernacion for its June 10 ECD action. This governmental department oversees Mexico’s immigration service and is directly responsible for the deportation of international observers. Gobernacion also oversees Mexico’s federal public security forces that have been working in conjunction with the military against Zapatista communities in Chiapas. As on April 10 and May 10, ECD on June 10 against the Gobernacion web site used a version of Flood Net. But this time, something curious happened. The Mexican government struck back. The Mexican Government or programmers hired by the government developed a countermeasure against Flood Net. The Electronic Disturbance Theater believes the following is what happened. A Java script was placed in the Secretaria de Gobernacion’s web site that was designed to activate whenever Flood Net was directed toward it. Upon activation, the Gobernacion site would open window after window on the Flood Net users browser. If the Flood Net user remained connected long enough. their browser, whether it be Netscape or Explorer, could crash. As of this writing EDT software designers are working to correct the problem in an attempt to make this sort of countermeasure in future actions ineffective.

Future Directions

    In its short lived history, the Electronic Disturbance Theater has demonstrated the capability to take action against portions of a political opponent’s Internet infrastructure. While at the same it has shown that its actions are of such a scale that they warrant state reaction and intervention, at least on the part of the Mexican government. The Electronic Disturbance Theater will continue to grow and move beyond tactics such as Flood Net. Eventually, tactical devices like Flood Net will just be one potential tool out of an array of electronic machines and software devices that cyber activists and artists will have access to and know how to use. We hope that soon, the Electronic Disturbance Theater becomes only one small group among a multiplicity of small groups, nodes, or cells, that push forward the ways and means for global electronic resistance to occur. We are already involved at the international level. This September’s Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria, an annual festival celebrating the juncture of arts and technology, will focus on Infowar and has already accepted our SWARM proposal. Think of a swarm as an array of Flood Net-like devices, arising, acting, and dispersing simultaneously against an array of cyberspacial political targets. If the electronic pulses generated by our Flood Net actions are represented by a small mountain stream, the electronic pulses generated by a swarm of convergent ECD actions are a raging torrent. We invite you to participate in, to help us promote, and to create new forms of Electronic Civil Disobedience.