Digital civil disobedience: tactics, tools and future threads

Protests, uprising and unrest are key elements of freedom of expression, contributing to the shape of society and public debate through history.
Over the centuries, individuals and groups have adopted countless tactics to reclaim rights and fight for justice – changing over time, transforming strategically according to different historical and political contexts.

What’s the current state of the art? Which are the tools adopted by protesters to raise awareness, unrest and mobilise?
Technology has entered the the world of activism, and we can recognise forms of protests which combine offline and online elements, as well as expressions of dissent which exclusively operate in the digital space.
This article aims to provide an overview of how digital civil disobedience looks like today, observe which tactics are in use and consider a possible path to develop the future tools which will help global citizens reclaim their rights.

What is digital civil disobedience

Talking about civil disobedience and digital civil disobedience alike requires the acknowledgment of controversies and debates influencing both activists’ actions and theorists’ studies relating to them.

In this context, Robin Celikates describes civil disobedience as “an intentionally unlawful and principled collective act of protest (in contrast to both legal protest and “ordinary” criminal offenses or “unmotivated” rioting), that (in contrast to conscientious objection, which is protected in some states as a fundamental right) has the political aim of changing specific laws, policies or institutions”.

Civil disobedience has been adopting a variety of approaches over the centuries, trying to increase the impact of protesters’ mobilisation and the efficacy of their actions. Among the most popular tactics adopted: demonstrations, sit-ins, workplace occupations, blockades, strikes, tax resistance, conscientious objection, sabotage.

Focusing on the most recent decades, we can reckon that the advent of the internet has had the most sensational effect on a growing number of countries. Since the early 90s the internet has become an increasingly (though not universally) accessible network (to the date of publishing it’s estimated that from less than 1% in 1995, today around 40% of the world population is online). This has strongly influenced a multitude of components of global citizens’ lives, including the mechanics of contemporary civil disobedience, and has led to the emergence of a totally new way to express dissent, broadly called digital civil disobedience.

The concept of digital civil disobedience is not exactly something we can straightforwardly define – not yet, at least.
A diversity of activist groups have been using technology to organise and develop digital tools and online actions, and their values and goals vary greatly – so greatly that even within one group a variety of positions can simultaneously emerge. A compelling snapshot of different takes on its history and currents of thought is offered by the panel discussion Hacktivism, or Fifty Shades of Grey Hat, featuring Gabriella Coleman, Stefania Milan and Frank Rieger and hosted by Oxblood Ruffin (May 2015).
Digital civil disobedience is not a transposition of known civil disobedience practices into a digital space. Networked technologies have their own characteristics, capabilities and limits and give the opportunity to create new infrastructures, tools and processes to express dissent and take political action.

Hacktivism, or Fifty Shades of Grey Hat – featuring Gabriella Coleman, Stefania Milan and Frank Rieger and hosted by Oxblood Ruffin.

Forms of protest in the digital space

The tools, infrastructures and patterns at disposal of protesters active in the digital space are numerous and ever-growing. Some operate exclusively online, some enhance the potential of actions simultaneously happening in the offline world; some are led by networks of anonymous actors, some are powered by individuals and groups who share their identities and stories publicly.

Drawing from analyses conducted by Molly Sauter and Zeynep Tufekci on different expressions of digital civil disobedience, it’s possible to highlight the most prominent characters of contemporary digitally-powered disobedience activity globally.

Information distribution
An action of information distribution is about acquisition and release of hidden or secret information. This can present itself as

  • whistleblowing – the act of deliberate disclosure of information deemed illegal, dishonest, or not correct within a public or private organisation
  • data exfiltration – the unauthorized transfer of data
  • doxing – researching and broadcasting personal information about an individual online
  • crowd-sourced investigations.

These practices can be used to expose injustice, corruption and violation of rights, reclaiming justice where policy and institutions seem to have failed (at least from the protesters’ point of view). Public media is the essential actor which can help strategically sort out and broadcast the newly acquired data.
For a full understanding of these methodologies, it’s also important to notice that they can also be adopted with criminal intent by individuals and groups aiming to harm vulnerable subjects, like in cases of online harassment through doxing. Such criminal acts can focus exclusively on violating someone’s privacy and safety, with no relation to other applications of these practices pursuing the recognition of rights, transparency and accountability. However, it’s fundamental not to dismiss these practices as exclusively dangerous and hurtful: as it happened with nearly any new tool in history – from fire, to electricity, to the internet itself – depending on their intent, human beings can use whatever they have at their disposal to either build or damage. The lines, as often happens, are not clear-cut.

Acts of information distribution have been adopted by numerous individuals and groups over the last decades. Referring to our most recent history, it’s key to recall groups like WikiLeaks, and whistleblowers such Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, William Binney, Annie Machon.

Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 5.25.53 PMScreenshot from Exposing the invisible. Our currency is information – with Paul Radu. Tactical Tech Collective.

Disturbing the status quo by disrupting the regular flow of information can help draw attention to a cause. Among the most popular techniques to achieve such outcome there are:

  • website defacements – attacks changing the visual appearance of a website or webpage
  • distributed denial of service (DDOS) actions – attacks sent by two or more people or bots aiming to make a machine or network resource unavailable to its intended users

The potential of this practice is in the recognition of the action from a broad audience (likely through major media outlets); its limit, consequently, is in the difficulty to raise awareness on the issue if the media doesn’t report the attack.

Disruptive tactics have been adopted since the mid-1990s by countless groups such as Electronic Disturbance Theater, the Strano Network and, more recently, Anonymous.

Digital networked technologies allow to connect, organise and mobilise communities more efficiently than ever before in history.

Of course, due to limitations caused by costs, connectivity and law, mobile phones, e-mails and social media are not accessible to everyone, and under dictatorships the use of networked technologies needs to be upgraded with the adoption of anonymising and privacy-enhancing technologies (see the following paragraph on Infrastructure).

But even considering the aforementioned variables, digital networked technologies are tangibly increasingly available to global citizens and can be considered game-changing tools for activists in need to use alternate communication loops.

They can greatly help to:

  • circumvent media blackouts by sharing information otherwise kept under silence by government and state-controlled media;
  • facilitate the formation of a collective identity supportive of the protest and mobilised to maximize the actions’ impact;
  • document and report wrongdoing and violations, also allowing to broadcast them beyond the national borders.

It’s important to notice that such tools have both pros and cons.
For example, Twitter can be a great tool to organise efforts, forward information and share support (hashtags can be very effective, as recently proved by #Ferguson or #BlackLivesMatter). At the same time, as also recently highlighted by Jillian York during her talk The cost of digital civil disobedience (as part of the workshop Civil disobedience beyond the state II), many activists are starting to prefer WhatsApp to it, for a variety of reasons: some find it more suitable to avoid online harassment, some find it better protects their personal safety, others assess it’s more effective.

Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 5.48.27 PMScreenshot from Do not track, episode 4: The spy in my pocket – with Harlo Holmes, Nathan Freitas, Julia Angwin, Kate Crawford, Rand Hindi. By Upian, the National Film Board of Canada, Arte, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Radio-Canada, RTS and AJ+.

When existing infrastructures are compromised by data gathering practices driven by governments or corporations, activists can decide to build new, and uncompromised, infrastructures.
One of the most notable examples of compromised infrastructure is provided today by mass surveillance. While cited by governments and corporations alike as necessary to protect national security, fight terrorism and child pornography, it is also a practice which can violate privacy rights, limit civil and political rights and freedoms, and also be illegal under some legal systems. It’s not by chance that the UN Human Rights Council appointed a special rapporteur on the right to privacy.

Some examples of tools and infrastructures built to protect citizens’ privacy in different ways:

  • Tor – a free software and an open network intended to protect the users’ privacy and freedom and ability to conduct confidential communication by keeping their Internet activities from being monitored
  • diaspora* – a free personal web server that implements a distributed social networking service, based on the core values of decentralisation, freedom and privacy
  • Open Whisper Systems apps – among them: RedPhone, a free and open source Android app providing end-to-end encryption for your calls; Signal, a free and open source iPhone app that employs end-to-end encryption, allowing users to send messages and make calls while keeping their communication safe.
  • alternate VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) – alternate network connections, for example often provided to communities experiencing state control and censorship on communications by activists from other countries (actually, having a VPN is starting to become recommendable for all individuals simply using the internet)

The tricky point here is: these tools often require considerable operational effort in order to be adopted and only a limited number of citizens and activists around the world currently knows about them and how to use them. It makes sense: this whole scenario is very new and ever-changing. It’s therefore very important for developers, tech capacity builders and educational outlets alike to work on knowledge-sharing and training efforts as well as on technical developments to provide global citizens with the most efficient tools to make their voices heard and fight for their rights.

What’s next? A possible route

This article provided a brief snapshot of digital civil disobedience tactics and tools. But already in its concise form, it makes clear that this new practice space is becoming increasingly important to raise awareness of rights violations at both global and local scale and to fight for positive changes in laws, policies and institutions.

However, as mentioned, knowledge of these tools and practices is not yet widely spread and even the most digitally equipped activists are often battling with operational limits and challenges.
So, what’s next?

This question is frequently debated at the moment, and during the recent workshop Civil Disobedience Beyond the State II, Gabriella Coleman proposed a hypothesis which sounded particularly interesting.
She suggested to look at other historical examples to see in there was any fitting learning we could draw from the past to understand how to move forward.
The example she picked was a notable one: the history of free software.

In an extremely concise recap: in 1983, as a response to the emergence of proprietary software (which to varying degrees prevents users from studying, modifying and sharing the software), Richard Stallman, from the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, launched the GNU Project, a collaborative effort to create a freedom-respecting operating system. The following years saw the advent of the term “free software” (its official definition was published in 1986) and of the Free Software Foundation.
The concept of free software was revolutionary – it gave end users complete freedom in using, studying, sharing and modifying the software. But its potential didn’t turn into new and popular infrastructures and tools overnight.
It took many years of work, by hundreds of programmers, most of them volunteers, to develop this operating system. In 1991, Linux, the free kernel written by Linus Torvalds, was developed, and it gradually started to attract the media’s attention – today, the combination of GNU and Linux is used by millions of people around the world. The late 1990s became an exciting time for the free software world. The developers of the time were “the heirs of an earlier hacking culture that thrived in the 1960s and 1970s when computers were still new, a community that believed software should be shared, and that all would benefit as a result. […] Thanks to the advent of relatively low-cost but powerful PCs and the global wiring on the Net, the new hackers [were] immeasurably more numerous, more productive, and more united than their forebears. They [were] linked by a command goal – writing great software – and a command code: that such software should be freely available to all.” Their achievements have proved enduring.

What we can learn from this, is that when thinking about the difficulties we are experiencing today with the tools aiming to preserve freedom of expression and right to protest, we can remember that it might be worth allowing more time to the development of such new infrastructures.
End-to-end encryption (ensuring that a message is turned into a secret message by its original sender, and decoded only by its final recipient) is a powerful instrument at our disposal; ever-growing numbers of developers are at work every day (as it was with free software, often as volunteers) to create the new tools to protect the rights of citizens all over the world; as the sudden availability of advanced, and relatively low-cost, devices made a big difference for the development of emerging technologies in the 90s, something comparable could potentially happen also in the near future.
All this would help diversify the tools at disposal of today’s protesters in the digital space – and it would be key for the efficacy of their actions, since, as proved by centuries of (offline) civil disobedience, being equipped with a variety of tactics provides stronger support and makes it harder for protests to be neutralized by law enforcement.

In conclusion

Civil disobedience is an act of protest which will always be fundamental for the collective ability to express dissent. Concurrently, new digital tools and tactics present a remarkable opportunity for the future of civil rights. Alongside already existing forms of expression of dissent, they provide global citizens and activists with instruments able to compete with the structures set up by the institutions they protest against, and offer the potential to increase the impact of their actions in the name of rights and justice.

Understanding, adopting and improving these new practices is of essential importance for the defense of global civil liberties, and it’s only with a collective effort to understand, adopt and improve this opportunity that we’ll be able to help building accountable and just societies all around the world.


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