Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Do governments have effective frameworks for allowing online protests?

I remember the great demonstration of November 1997. A plea went out asking citizens to gather outside their leader's home to protest about major problems with the system. They were requested to be peaceful and law-abiding, to simply chant slogans, drink beer and remove their clothes.

This demonstration was to be in Ultima Online, a massive multiplayer online game which, when launched, had a number of bugs and issues which frustrated gamers. One gamer decided that a protest in the game would be an effective way to bring the issues to the game developer's attention.

The protest was cancelled (the developers got the message), however it was my first exposure to an online protest movement - a gathering of people in a virtual space to protest a real concern (albeit in this case a game-specific issue).

Since that time, almost fourteen years ago, there's been many other online demonstrations on a range of topics. Some of the most notable include the candlelit vigils held in Everquest and Anarchy Online following the 9/11 attacks, and the 'Dead in Iraq' protest in 2006, recognising US deaths in the war (see video below).

As the world has digitalised and more people spend more time online it is logical that the internet becomes a significant channel for demonstrations and protests, as the internet has become for entertainment, social interaction, shopping and self-actualisation. As far back as 2007 the Washington Post was reporting Where Have All the Protests Gone? Online

Today Facebook and Twitter are central channels for organising and carrying out protests. Users are regularly asked by their friends to change their profile pictures, add a 'Twibbon', join a cause or take other steps to build awareness of or indicate their support for a given cause or issue.

Online petitions are also widespread and, in some cases supported and facilitated by governments, such as the UK ePetition website.

Many of these online protest approaches are peaceful and unobtrusive, although some are a little more direct - such as the GreenPeace organised protest against Nestle via Nestle's Facebook page.

Australia, and many nations around the world, have long supported the right of citizens to stage peaceful marches and demonstrations to call attention to issues or highlight disagreements with public policy.

In some cases these protests have stepped from peaceful into legally grey areas - acts that constrain the ability of authorities or organisations to take certain actions. For example, people forming picket lines to keep out 'scabs', laying in front of bulldozers, chaining themselves to trees, placing a ship between a whaler and a whale, blockading the entrance of abortion clinics, striking, throwing shoes and custard pies or even 'fax-spamming' organisations to stop them receiving or sending business faxes.

For the most part these activities don't result in the participants receiving major legal penalties, either significant fines or gaol time.

However Australia, like most nations, doesn't always have the same tolerance for the online equivalent of these types of protest activities.

Online protests involving blockades of websites are termed 'denial of service attacks'. The goal is to restrict access to an organisation's website - slowing it down or causing it to crash and become unavailable for a period of time.

While it is in many respects similar to a picket line or 'fax-spamming', denial of service attacks on websites are illegal in Australia and many other countries.

This is for good reasons, as these attacks can be carried out by criminal organisations as part of blackmail operations, as acts of wars by foreign powers or even to break down a server's defenses in order to steal confidential information and personal details.
In fact the Australian Attorney-General's office has said that attacks such as this should not be seen as "legitimate forms of protest activity but rather are public nuisance akin to vandalism" (in the SMH article Action stations as cyber attacks on Australia soar).

(It is also worth noting that the same activity is not always illegal - Sometimes 'denial of service' is not an attack - such as when thousands flooded to government sites to find information on Victoria's fires in 2009 or the load on the Bureau of Meteorology's site during the Queensland floods.)

This leave citizens in an interesting position. Acts that are accepted as legitimate expression of freedom of speech in physical environments, and may occur incidentally online, are not always considered legitimate ways of expressing oneself on the internet.

I'm not advocating that denial of service attacks should be legal, however governments and citizens in Australia do need to continue to consider the legitimate and acceptable boundaries for protest activities online.

When does digital activism become unacceptable and illegal?

And do citizens recognise or share the same line in the sand as authorities?

1 comment:

  1. In my ideal word of perfect community engagement, I tend to think that disruptive attacks like these are symptomatic of the failure to identify, appreciate and address concerns earlier. I’m sure that’s a lot harder to do than it is to write, but I also think there is room for improvement in enabling people to be heard on issues important to them. Providing rational, sensible mechanisms like ePetitions is fine, but then if the effort to corral support from the community goes unacknowledged, more desperate measures are bound to follow. I wonder if an accused hacktivist could claim mitigating circumstances if their more acceptable forms of protest had repeatedly been ignored?