The Coming Swarm: DDOS Actions, Hacktivism, and Civil Disobedience on the Internet by Molly Sauter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Full disclosure: I am a good friend and colleague of the author and followed this work from near its inception.
This is an important contribution to political theory, social movements and civic studies. Molly provides a nuanced argument for situating DDOS within a repertoire of more widely and traditionally accepted civil disobedience tactics. Her command of the relevant history, literature, and theory allows her to trace the fundamental qualities of disruptive political action, cutting through the nostalgic version of the civil rights movement and the confusing media and legal narratives that push political hacktivists into criminal and terrorist categories.
Once again, this is a work of political theory by an adept media scholar. She is not an apologist for DDOSers broadly. Molly is clear that DDOS’s efficacy as disruptive political action has never been clear and is in fact on the path toward diminishing returns. Moreover, despite Molly’s argument, we as a society may never successfully separate activist DDOS from criminal DDOS. The ethical boundaries under which legitimate civil disobedience occurs within this form of digital activism are hard to accomplish as the tools move away from one computer one voice, voluntarily and explicitly offered, toward passive participation or nonvoluntary botnets employed in protests.
In many ways, the metaphors to street protest and sit-ins break down in the online spaces, where there are no true public spaces in which freedom of speech and assembly can be practiced in legally sanctioned ways. Furthermore, DDOS actions don’t clearly represent their political nature
And where does it extend? I recently asked Molly if she thought that giving money to big campaigns, trusting them to spend it wisely, was similar to offering your computer to an IRC channel to use for DDOS actions they deemed a priority. Using her theory, we can relate both of these resources—money and computing—to political speech. And she believes they are similar. However, there is a difference in cost. One hundred dollars costs someone $100, whereas the computing resources are negligible as they are part of the sunk cost of owning computers and paying for bandwidth. There is also a difference in risk. Giving money to a cause is a low cost activity. In many cases you can give money anonymously too, if privacy is important.
Thanks to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act though, participating in a DDOS action puts a person at risk of felony fraud charges with significant prison time and “damage” liability. The value and legitimacy of political action should not be based on either cost or risk, even though, as Molly points out in her book, personal cost and the threat of arrest are historically markers of public legitimization of dissent. The police and courts help draw attention to an action by reacting to it and your willingness to be put on trial demonstrates your respect for the law whilst also disagreeing with it.
DDOS activists do not have the luxury of facing “reasonable” risk though in their civil disobedience. The legibility of DDOS as political action is hard for observers less sophisticated than Molly. The dramatic consequences of the CFAA forces most arrests into plea bargaining in which the role of legal spectacle to legitimize the political action disappear: there is no “day in court” for the activists, rather they come off as guilt-admitting criminals, who are now not allowed to talk about the intention of their actions publicly due to the conditions of the plea deal.
This is Molly’s other major contribution in this work: a cogent argument for reforming the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in light of how it squelches what she argues should be understood as legitimate political speech acts in the form of DDOS actions.
Note: the book begins with a dense introduction as Molly outlines the theoretical, technical, and legal context of her argument, but this sets the stage for a highly readable journey through the evolution of DDOS as action and a healthy reminder of what civil disobedience is all about. Reading this book in the midst of the Ferguson and Eric Garner protests around the country, I was more reflective about disruptive action. What can we do online? Where should the direct and indirect actions go and how will they be judged? I’m both eager and worried for the future of digital activism, as I know Molly is.