Stefan Wray on Sat, 2 May 1998 19:35:27 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> For Their Civil Disobedience, the 'Sit-In' Is Virtual

>From The Cyberlaw Journal. New York Times on the Web.

May 1, 1998

For Their Civil Disobedience, the 'Sit-In' Is Virtual


Don't call them hackers. Ricardo Dominguez and Stefan Wray consider
themselves theorists and practitioners of "electronic civil disobedience."

And they plan to show what that newly coined term means in an online protest 
on May 10, on behalf of embattled Indian rebels in Mexico. On that day they 
will try to rally supporters around the world to temporarily disrupt -- but 
not destroy -- a still-to-be-determined Web site in Mexico or elsewhere in 
North America supportive of the policies of the Mexican government.

"A cyber-terrorist acts anonymously and destructively a great deal of the
time," said Dominguez, 39, a soft-spoken New York-based political activist,
artist and computer technician. "But electronic civil disobedience, like its
[real-world] antecedents, is about putting yourself on the line in a 
nonviolent way."

And unlike a classic act of real-word protest, for which students might
perform a sit-in in front of a local consulate or in the office of a
university president, the nature of the Internet allows for "a virtual
sit-in on a mass, global level," Dominguez said.

Wray, a 37-year old graduate student at New York University who hosts a
personal Web site devoted to the theory of electronic civil disobedience,
added: "Why should we be anonymous? Obviously, we don't believe we are
doing anything wrong."

Dominguez and Wray, who have known each other for several years, are both
active in Internet-based organizations that support the Zapatista rebels in
Mexico.  Since the uprising of the mainly Indian guerrillas of the Zapatista
National Liberation Army in 1994, Web-based human rights and progressive
organizations around the world have networked with each other and the rebels 
to trade information on the tense situation in the Mexican state of Chiapas. 
The groups have also sent e-mails and faxes to Mexican officials to protest 
Mexican government policy.

But this traditional form of Web-based grass-roots organizing and
informational exchange is taking a sharp turn into the future.

Last January, for example, a group of political activists from Italy,
called the Anonymous Digital Coalition, posted a message in the Zapatista
networks calling for a virtual sit-in at one of five Mexican sites on
January 29, from 4 to 5 p.m., Greenwich Mean Time. The announcement
suggested that "all netsurfers with ideals of justice" connect their
browsers to one of the selected sites at the appointed time and manually
hit the "reload" button every few seconds for the hour.

For Dominguez, who, among other things, works as editor of The Thing, a
small ISP based in New York, and who has also written on the subject of
"infowar" and electronic civil disobedience, the posting from Italy came as
revelation. He decided that, along with some other artists and computer
technicians, he would take the virtual sit-in tactic one step further.

Dominguez and two colleagues, including Brett Stalbaum, an artist and
programmer based in San Jose, quickly designed a Web site called Flood Net,
which automates the process of the virtual sit-in. 

The way it works is simple: a Web surfer connects to Flood Net, which
appears on the Internet only at an appointed time, so as to avoid
detection. Flood Net automatically connects the surfer to a pre-selected
Web site, and the software automatically hits the selected site's reload
button every seven seconds. If thousands of surfers connect with Flood Net
during a particular day, themass of activists could disrupt the operations
of the particular site.

In an early test of their system, Dominguez and Wray posted messages in the
Zapatista networks in early April, calling for colleagues to link to Flood
Net on April 10. The target that day was the Web site of President Ernesto
Zedillo of Mexico. According to Dominguez, 8,141 surfers around the world
connected to Flood Net that day, which resulted in some slowing down and
interruption of the Zedillo site. Dominguez added that a computer from
Mexico tried to hack into Flood Net and disable its program, but was

A spokesperson for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C., acknowledged
that there was a protest action aimed at government Web sites on April 10.
Although there was some disturbance, "there wasn't much negative impact,"
the spokesperson said.

On May 10, Mother's Day, Dominguez and Wray expect to roll out Flood Net
for another spin. They say the targeted site, which will be selected at the
last moment, could be in Mexico or elsewhere in North America. Dominguez
said the targeted site would be selected for its symbolic value. "We're not
out to interfere with a site that has valuable data," he said.

Dominguez added that he expects several Flood Net "mirror sites" to crop up
on May 10 -- ensuring some measure of security from possible counter-action.

Recently, at the spare West Side offices of The Thing, Dominguez and Wray
talked about their views of electronic civil disobedience. Dominguez, a
former actor, has a low, deep voice and speaks in measured tones. Wray, who
sports a mandatory graduate student beard, was more casual.

Both conceded that the tactics of the virtual sit-in would not directly
force the Mexican government to change its policies. But that is not the
point, they said. Rather, the protest tactic is designed to create a form
of electronic theater that indirectly increases solidarity among activists
and propagates a political message to "other layers" of the Internet.

The pair also acknowledged that their tactic is not universally condoned by
their colleagues. One human rights group in Mexico, they said, recently
posted a message objecting to the April invasion of Mexican cyberspace and
questioned whether the electronic sit-in would invite retaliation. For
these reasons, the friends said, they will consider targeting a site in the
United States on May 10.

They do not think they are breaking any law. And even if they were,
Dominguez said, the risks are inherent in the practice of civil disobedience. 

"Sometimes if you sit in front of an office, they will say you are
trespassing," he said. "The question is, whose law is more important -- the
law of human rights or the local law of trespassing."

Mark D. Rasch, an Internet consultant and former head of the Justice
Department's efforts to prosecute computer crime, said in an interview that
participants in electronic sit-ins run a risk of violating a federal law,
18 U.S.C., section 1030 (a)(5)(A). That statute, he said, makes it a crime
to intentionally distribute a program, software code or command with the
intent to cause damage to another's Web site.

"These guys are at risk," said Rasch, referring to Dominguez and Wray and
their colleagues. "It may be an electronic sit-in, but people get arrested
at sit-ins," he said.

David Ronfeldt, a senior social scientist at the Rand Corporation, a think 
tank in Santa Monica, Calif., is an expert on information age conflicts. 
He thinks electronic civil disobedience as practiced by Dominguez and Wray 
is not benign.

"I see it somewhere between a digital sit-in and 'cybotage,' " he said.
"They are trying to crash Web pages and servers. It's aggressive."

Ronfeldt, who said he has visited Wray's personal Web site, and who sent 
Wray an e-mail congratulating him on his theoretical essays, predicted that
electronic civil disobedience will become a more common tool for political
activists in the near future.

"Conflict in the information age will be more about disruption than
destruction," Ronfeldt said. "And much of the disruption will be symbolic."

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