Fwd: On Electronic Civil Disobedience

From "4 2" <starlightdove@hotmail.com>
Date Mon, 25 Oct 1999 16:24:00 GMT

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"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."

On Electronic Civil Disobedience.

On Electronic Civil Disobedience
by Stefan Wray
Paper presented to the 1998 Socialist Scholars Conference
Panel on Electronic Civil Disobedience
March 20, 21, and 22
New York, NY

I heartily accept the motto, -- "That government is best which
governs least;" and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and 
systematically. Carried out it finally amounts to this, which I also 
believe, -- "That government is best which governs not at all;"
                           - Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau.

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 delivered a 
lecture titled "Resistance to Civil Government," which was later 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

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, 

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 

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 
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 

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 
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.

                                 - End -

Word Count: 2,830
(Stefan Wray is a doctoral student in the Dept. 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: 


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.

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