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Political Protest Online

Burqas, Guy Fawkes and Lady GaGa.


Political protest is unsettling. It’s meant to be. Online political protest has been the subject of many column inches and blog posts, particularly since late 2010 when Hillary Clinton outlined her vision for Internet Freedom, Wikileaks spilled a tranche of US diplomatic cables and the ‘Arab Spring’ began with regime change in Tunisia. With a little distance, it’s interesting to look at the outcomes and assess where we are and what has happened over the last few years. Opinions differ; we have the handy new labels of cyber-utopianism, cyber-realism and cyber-scepticism to help us catalogue the analysts but, turning back to the events themselves and the implications for the societies in which they occurred, one thing seems remarkably clear. Online political protest is a source of disruption but not only for the Middle East North African (MENA) states of the Arab Spring – but for Western liberal democracies as well.

One of the key themes to emerge from the Arab Spring uprisings – at least for Western analysts, was that the dogged oppression of political protesters in the information age is not as easy as it was pre-social media tools. But perhaps one of the most uncomfortable implications of the past three years is that online political protest is highlighting some real deficits in Western society that are worthy of some serious self-reflection. Enthusiasm about the transformative potential of Internet Freedom aside, Western societies are clearly struggling to define appropriate parameters for online protest and it’s an urgently needed debate.

Recently in the UK, Christopher Weatherhead, a 22 year old Northampton University student was sentenced to 18 months in jail for his role in Anonymous‘Operation Payback’. The DDoS attacks on financial service providers like PayPal, Visa and Mastercard following their refusal to process donations for Wikileaks in the immediate wake of the ‘Cablegate’ affair were short lived but certainly not without financial and reputational damages to the corporations that were targeted (though the £3.5 million that PayPal claim the attack cost them has raised eyebrows amongst some security analysts). But then again, 18 months in prison is a serious penalty for a serious crime. Weatherhead was found guilty (with others) of contributing to Operation Payback and of encouraging others to do so in online chat rooms (specifically, of one count of conspiracy to impair the operation of computers). Significantly though, the sentencing judge explicitly pointed out that Weatherhead’s actions were not directed toward commercial gain. They were ‘activity by way of protest’, the judge argued.

DDoS attacks are intended to make a website temporarily unavailable by bombarding it with requests. They are not hacks, there is usually no permanent damage and nothing is stolen. These attacks are increasingly regarded as a kind of ‘digital sit-in’. Anonymous lawyer Jay Leiderman has made a novel argument worth consideration in this context and he does so by (intentionally or not) drawing upon the same historical event that Malcolm Gladwell builds upon in his seminal New Yorker piece about the Arab Spring– the coffee shop sit-in at a North Carolina Woolworth’s lunch counter initiated by four university students protesting their lack of civil rights in 1960. On the first day of protest, Gladwell writes, the four students turned up and wouldn’t leave until they were served – which they weren’t. Each day, they returned and more students and supporters joined the protest. By the weekend, there were 600 protesters waiting to be served at Woolworth’s. The following week, the sit-ins spread across state lines with some 70,000 people eventually taking part. Gladwell uses this example to build his argument that close ties – not social networking technology are essential for sustained, effective political protest. Leiderman uses it as an analogy for a DDoS attack by arguing that asking for service and not getting it isn’t a crime. Asking lots of people to do the same thing also isn’t a crime. If the students had been served lunch, or if that portion of civil society that supported Wikileak’s activities had been able to donate money to them, there would have been no sit-in and no Operation Payback, Leiderman argues.

Certainly, neither Paypal nor the lunch counter could operate effectively during the protests. Both found themselves a target of a broader period of transition and social disruption. In the former case, we look back with gratitude to those four brave, young university students and their supporters and consider the lost revenue of Woolworth’s inconsequential in the broader scheme of social and political change. In the more recent case of Operation Payback, there remains a significant degree of ambivalence about the boundaries of online civil protest and the law. The tension of course, arises in trying to navigate between our expectation that the state will protect our right to carry on business free from interference and the expectation that if we feel very strongly about social or political injustice, we have the right (indeed, some would argue we have an obligation) to take action – at least within the boundaries of law. It’s clear that we have some thinking to do about what constitutes legal online political protest – remembering that our conception of offline political protest took centuries to refine and continues to evolve.  Of course, if the protesters in the MENA revolutions had adhered to their local laws, it is unlikely that we would have witnessed change there. Howard Zinn’s timeless observation that ‘protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it’ can perhaps provide a bridge between those that view law and order as essential to a free society and those that acknowledge that social expectations change over time and periodically require adjustment, not always possible through wholly pacific means.

In the US, Bradley Manning also appeared in court last month. He is charged with 22 offences including the capital offence of ‘aiding the enemy’ over the download of the ‘Collateral Murder’ video footage and a tranche of diplomatic cables (that he reportedly copied onto a Lady Gaga cd in plain view of other staff) – both of which he passed onto Wikileaks. Manning recently spoke for the first time since being arrested about his motivation. Portrayed over the past two years as a lonely misfit, Manning articulated a deep frustration at his inability to get his superiors to take seriously the breaches of the Geneva Conventions which he perceived in the video and saw reinforced in practice around him. Whether it was his conscience or his understanding of his obligation under international law (or both), Manning has quite obviously taken a decisive political stand on US military practices in Iraq which of course, should be the issue.

Views on Manning’s actions are divided – a point eloquently brought out in this piece by Floyd Abrams and Yochai Benkler published in the New York Times the other day. Although Abrams and Benkler openly disagree on many aspects of this case including the legitimacy of Manning’s actions, the one thing they are united on is the danger that allowing whistle-blowers to face the death penalty poses to a democracy. Bradley Manning could have protested by ‘liking’ an anti-war Facebook page or by Tweeting his personal views but he chose to voice his protest in a way that would have considerably more impact. Holding governments to account has always been fundamental to a democratic society but new technology is forcing a reassessment of how we approach this legally and politically as societies committed to transparency and accountability.

The irony of 2010/2011 seems to be lost on courts and governments in the UK and US. While we busily promoted the use of new technology to right wrongs and bring about change in the MENA states, online political protesters and whistle blowers at home are going to jail. The next wave of Christopher Weatherheads will be unlikely to learn from this that they should be more mindful of the rights of corporations and less disobedient. Perhaps instead, they will make use of some of the exciting new technologies the State Department has funded and provided to political protesters in the MENA region to enhance their own online security and allow them to undertake political protest in the US and the UK – some of which may at times tip the scales toward illegal behaviour. Leiderman’s argument that a DDoS attack can be equated to a speech act is provocative and may be a step too far for many. But clearly we have a way to go in working out a reasonable and equitable response to online protestors that continues to respect the human right to protest in the West. The manner in which governments deal with political protestors, whether garbed in a burqa or a Guy Fawkes mask, is a measure of the health of that state. It’s essential now that Western states look very closely at how they themselves are adapting to the information age in this context. The cost of not doing so will far outstrip any losses that PayPal, Mastercard or Visa suffered.