DOES CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE have a place in cyberspace?

Date Mon, 17 Jan 2000 12:49:10 -0500

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DOES CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE have a place in cyberspace? I've been wondering
about this question in light of the dispute between eToys and etoy.

Like the locals from an old neighborhood who are irritated by the
arrival of the  nouveau riche, many veteran Net heads deplore the
commercialization of the Internet. The eToys vs. etoy battle is
indicative of the clash between new-money commerce companies and
old-time Internet culture.

In case you missed it, etoy -- singular, not plural -- is a group of
Swiss artists and pranksters of some fame within certain circles. On the
other hand, eToys is one of the top commerce sites on the Internet and
valued at slightly less than $4 billion as of this writing.

Now, you've probably noticed the similarity in their names. And that's
at the heart of a bitter legal dispute between the two; eToys filed suit
against etoy, alleging a trademark infringement. Etoys finally backed
down and dropped its lawsuit after generating a small firestorm of a
controversy. Network Solutions managed to toss a little more gasoline on
the fire by unplugging etoy's e-mail, something that arguably went
beyond the scope of the original restraining order.

In the real world, different companies with similar names can
distinguish themselves by location, physical structures, and the like.
On the Internet, a single letter can be all that separates two wildly
different organizations.

But let's be crystal clear about one thing: Despite some press accounts
of this story, etoy vs. eToys was not an example of someone
cybersquatting on a valuable domain, looking for a cash windfall.
According to the Whois database of who owns which domain names,
and its record were first created on Oct. 13, 1995;'s record
was created on Nov. 3, 1997.

It's really rather simple: The etoy artists and their Web site predate
eToys by two years. But eToys has a trademark and millions of dollars
invested in its brand.

Regardless of your position on the issue, the eToys lawsuit was quite a
blunder. The move to block the etoy Web site smacks of a big-money
corporation using its muscle to push around the little guy, something
that always gets you a lot of popular support. You have to wonder: After
all the money eToys spent to promote its brand, couldn't the company
have come up with a better solution? It makes you wonder how eBay has
restrained itself from suing and whether should sic its
lawyers on And let's not bring up and the
subtle distinction between it and

Several groups and individuals started Denial of Service (DoS) attacks
on eToys and its Web site. Having customers locked out of the site
during the all-important holiday retail season potentially could have
had devastating economic consequences for the e-tailer. According to
eToys officials,  site availability only dropped 2 percent; others say
eToys and its availability was seriously affected.

DoS attacks aren't legal; they deny owners and legitimate users access
to property. It's clearly an infringement on a company's Web site. At
the same time, launching a DoS attack is not the same as cracking a site
and defacing it or destroying data

Consider this: How is the little guy is supposed to fight an injustice
against Goliath? A few artists taking on a multibillion dollar dot-com
giant doesn't seem like much of a fight. As an example, in order to
protect its name, etoy has had to fight eToys in a Los Angeles court.

So how do you conduct civil disobedience on the Internet? The classic
form of nonviolent civil disobedience is a sit-in, often blocking access
to businesses or government facilities. Martin Luther King Jr. changed
the fate of this country and millions of people with it. Mahatma Gandhi
freed a nation.

I'm not going to be facile enough to say that the etoy struggle is
comparable to the struggle for human freedom. But the Internet is
changing everything in our society. And the techniques of real-world
social change will find an analogy online.

And yes, protesters are often going to annoy and irritate. But they draw
your attention to a cause. And that's really the point of social

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