Civil disobedience and the Internet

Molly sez, "I wrote this short essay over at iO9 on what the future of civil disobedience could look like. Though in the past civil disobedience was enacted in the streets, with people placing their bodies in harm's way for their cause, now online activists can engage in digitally-based acts of civil disobedience from their keyboards. I lay out three major lines along which digitally-based civil disobedience is developing: disruption, information distribution, and infrastructure. The future of civil disobedience online lies in affinity groups combining these three styles of activism, and using a diversity of tactics to support a common cause."

Infrastructure-based activism involves the creation of alternate systems to replace those that have been compromised by state or corporate information-gathering schemes. In other words, if the government is snooping on the internet, activists build a tool to make it harder for them to see everything. Tor, Diaspora, and are some examples of these projects, as are the guerrilla VPNs and network connections that often spring up to serve embattled areas, provided by activists in other countries.

Similar to living off the grid, these projects provide people with options beyond the default. Open source or FLOSS software and Creative Commons use a similar tactic: when the system stops working, create a new system. The challenge is to bring these new systems into widespread use without allowing them to be compromised, either politically or technically. However, these new systems often have to fight network effects as they struggle to attract users away from dominant systems. Diaspora faced this issue with Facebook. Without being able to disrupt dominant systems, user migration is often slow and piecemeal, lacking the impact activists hope for.

The Future of Civil Disobedience Online


  1. The infrastructure element reminds me of the “network within a network” that Gibson talked a lot about in his second trilogy. Yet another reason to adore William Gibson, reading the man is like having a private consultant to The Future.

  2. The problem with civil disobedience online is that it’s even more easily infiltrated by instigators hired by opposing parties such as corporations, political groups, and government. We know activists in the 1960s were infiltrated by the FBI and other groups; why would we assume the present U.S. administration does anything differently?

    Just look at how many people want to believe in Edward Snowden’s hard-to-believe backstory. If you follow mainstream or alternative media, you’d think the only question is whether “Snowden” is a whistleblower or a traitor. A very possible third option is that he’s still CIA or NSA and working as part of a “limited hangout” operation.

    Those who question Snowden and his story are accused of being instigators themselves, if the idea is discussed at all. Just look at Naomi Wolf, who has herself been accused by Snowden believers of working for the NSA, simply for questioning whether Snowden is who he claims to be.

    1. Focusing on the messenger is the trait of the establishment in this situation, that’s why she’s being rebuked. Information is its own reward, and the chief lesson to be learned here is that leaking is the most effective form of protest available today. Reducing information assymmetry is a key to determining whether and how much clothes the emperor is wearing in this age of PR-driven politics.

      1. Thankyou; exactly right.  It doesn’t matter who Snowden is and why he’s doing it. 

        The NSA’s criminal behaviour is the issue here, and “discredit the messenger” is a time-honoured state tactic for avoiding doing anything about the crimes.

    2. I just read her Facebook page you’re talking about. She’s suspicious of Snowden because he is:

      a) Super-organized (for a whistleblower).

      b) He doesn’t stutter.

      c) Answered questions about himself in an interview and now we all know what he has to lose. (More on the pole dancer later…)

      d) He’s now on a UK no-fly list. (I also imagine he’s on a USA yes-please-fly-right-to-us list)

      e) He’s got a pretty girlfriend who has… pole danced.

      f) He’s in Hong Kong. (Maybe Mexico would have been better?)

      g) He’s hiding where most of us can’t find him.

      h) Noami hasn’t heard from his lawyer yet.

      Overall, I think she’s saying he’s been “trained” to act cold and non-plussed about all of this and become “a warning” to other whistleblowers.

      In my opinion, Snowden acts like nearly every other friend I’ve ever had that’s been a libertarian who supports Ron Paul. They often tend to be a little cold, quietly cocky and also pack a pretty funny dry wit (especially after being plied with dark beer or good wine). All the signs of a double-double-agent of the CIA? Nah, just another libertarian fer christ’s sake.

      And, finally, she says there’s “a very senior official in the intelligence world” (who she won’t name) that told her that intelligence agencies fib from time to time.

      OK…. ಠ_ಠ

      I don’t think Noami is with the NSA for saying this, but I do think she may need to look into getting some mental health counseling. This is coming from someone who really respects a lot of her work.

      I’ve seen this kind of thing happen to various noble friends of mine in the past. Too much nutty, creepy stuff goes on and they snap like this from the pressure… and paranoia kicks in.

      I wish her well and I sincerely hope she takes a vacation and sees somebody where she can talk through some potential issues. I hope I don’t come off like I’m trying to be mean about this, because I really do wish her well. Just sounds like she’s going through a rough patch.

      That said, she does need to be called out for this. We have enough FUD floating around without Noami adding this nonsense to the mix unchallenged.

  3. If you want to mention Rosa Parks and the US’s non-violent civil rights movement, great.  But get it right.  Don’t cite it if you’re going to fuck up it’s meaning and methods.  

    They weren’t just breaking the law to because they didn’t like it.  They were breaking the law and being punished intentionally to show that that law was unjust.   The system was wrong, and unjust, and needed to be fixed.  They purposefully placed themselves into that system and subjected themselves to that punishment to show that, and to ultimately get it changed.

    The Civil Rights movement was a Christian one, and the idea of martyrdom was at the center.

    It doesn’t work if you run.  It doesn’t work if you’re anonymous.  It doesn’t work if you hide.  There’s no sympathy.  No one sees the system for what it is.  All they see is someone trying to get away with something.  And ultimately, you can’t have court cases and trials and appeals and laws struck down if you’re not placing yourself into the court system.

    Look at the pictures of Rosa Parks being arrested.  She’s satisfied.  And her mugshot?  Dressed in her sunday best and smiling.  Look at people calmly being assaulted at lunch counters.  Being beaten by the police.  Attacked by dogs.  Children walking serenely past screaming bigots to get to their newly integrated school.  

    Compare those iconic images to the Guy Fawkes masks.  Assange hiding out in some mansion or foreign embassy.  Snowden being interviewed in a luxury hotel halfway around the world.

    There’s all sorts of civil disobedience, but the sort practiced by the Civil Rights movement is nothing like what’s being talked about here.  If you’re not a part of this tradition, stop trying to claim you are.  

    1. Widespread surveillance protected by secret courts is an injustice by definition: there is no justice where the criteria are hidden and where the criteria cannot even be questioned.

      1. Did you also miss the part where her contemporaries were being beaten, assassinated, and lynched for similar seemingly minor acts of civil disobedience?

        1. No, of course not. The point is that these are two rather different situations: blaming Snowden for not being Rosa Parks is just weird. It wasn’t really a focus of the i09 article, but you’ve used her heroism as a yardstick to both measure and beat Snowden with. 

          1.  no, not snowden. just those who talk about messing around with networks while anonymous as equivalent to past acts of civil disobedience that actually accomplished stuff.

          2. It’s like criticizing Rosa Parks because she didn’t have the conviction to be crucified upside down like “real” martyrs.

          3. You know damned well that she and the people around her risked, and in fact, suffered that and worse.

            Even if that wasn’t the case, it doesn’t change a thing.  The acts of civil disobedience being talked about in this article have nothing to do with the Civil Rghts movement and the type of civil disobedience it practiced.

            Trying to claim they’re part of the same tradition is just ignorant.  

          4. Taking one group of protesters out of the history of protest throughout the world and declaring that they are somehow special or more important than other protesters is self-serving provincialism.

          5. I don’t want to ‘beat’ Snowden, just people invoking the Civil Rights movement in defense of something entirely different.  It’s disrespectful.

          6. Speaking of disrespectful, are you speaking for Rosa Parks or something?

            Could you imagine it’s possible she’d think Edward Snowden is a brave person in his own right helping to protect our civil rights as well?I’m not sure, but I doubt she’d join you in your little, trite pissing match.

             “I just think Rosa Parks was overrated. Last time I checked, she got famous for breaking the law.” -Stephen Colbert

    2. The civil rights activists of the 50s and 60s believed that they could successfully appeal to the hearts and minds of the American public.

      That the public would not accept a woman going to jail because she would not give up her bus seat.  Would not accept a first grader having to be escorted to class by armed troops.  Would not accept fire hoses being turned on those seeking to register to vote.

      And of course they turned out to be 100 percent correct.

      Do those who wear the Guy masks, who decamp from their “occupations” rather than be arrested, who “whistleblow” from foreign sanctuary, similarly believe that the public will be sufficiently moved by their courage to demand change??  Personally, I doubt it.

    3. FWIW, I agree.  Snowden may be engaged in protest but I don’t think the term ‘civil disobedience’ is an accurate one.  Protests can take many forms and I’m not judging the validity of his.  But civil disobedience, as I was taught it, required not just that one consciously break a law but that one also submit to the existing justice system.  That last step is vital to communicate the unjustness of the law and its need for change while also showing a willingness to work within a system, recognizing its benefits.

      It is an exceedingly fragile, trust-dependent system.  It can be co-opted and worked around.  Cynically, it probably ought to _never_ work.  IMHO that is what makes its successes so noteworthy and why the term shouldn’t be bandied about too casually.

    4. Compare those iconic images [of Rosa Parks, police intimidation, etc] to the Guy Fawkes masks.  Assange hiding out in some mansion or foreign embassy.  Snowden being interviewed in a luxury hotel halfway around the world. There’s all sorts of civil disobedience, but the sort practiced by the Civil Rights movement is nothing like what’s being talked about here.  If you’re not a part of this tradition, stop trying to claim you are.

      I’m not clear on the categorical separation you seem to be trying to call out here.  People in Fawkes masks et al are trying to change the system, by doing things deemed “illegal” by unjust laws, and in so doing putting themselves very much at risk of real beatings, imprisonments, etc, at a time when many would say that the chances of fair trials and “cool heads presiding” politically are by some measures significantly worse than Rosa Parks’ day.  If we’re talking about trying to make the world a better place, breaking laws to do it, taking on risk, what exactly is the difference?  If I want to point out that fighting in world war II was very very different than fighting in world war I because of technology changes, political changes, or what have you, I might be able do that in a college history lecture hall without seeming pedantic… but doing it to deflate or demean people who are earnestly fighting a corrupted vicious system just seems small-minded.

  4. Civil Disobedience reminds us of the default obedience upon which the system depends. When enough people stop cooperating with that system, the system can no longer function.

    In meatspace, this process is supposed to bring us together. We see what’s happening to people protesting a fucked up system, and we’re forced to take sides. Would we rather silently ignore the problem, or take the same risks as those getting martyred?

     I like to think that Snowden was acting in solidarity  with Bradley Manning when he chose to act. But that’s an arena  you only get to play in when you have access to sensitive data, and a conscience that drives you to do something with it.


     Street activists are constantly looking for new ideas, new tactics, things to try to expand out influence. It’s possible that the internet can be used to exert a different kind of pressure from the typical street protest. But I think it’s far more likely that it will lull people into the false belief that all they need to change the world is click enough “like” buttons and re-post enough banner ads, and they’ll have earned a new lurker’s paradise.

  5. This might be useful for making change in the world, it might not. But it isn’t civil disobedience. The problem with much online activism is that it often feels like you’re doing something when in reality you are not. It doesn’t actually threaten the people in power and so it doesn’t change the things that matter.

Comments are closed.