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15 December 2014

Disobey 2.0 – civil disobedience in a digitized world

Until today the case of Aaron Swartz leaves the ones who knew him – and many others who admire him – in despair. He was threatened with 35 years of imprisonment and a one million dollar fine for the unlawful download of 4 million research articles. His suicide is a wake-up call: Is it really people like Aaron who deserve to be punished as trouble-makers for our societies? Or is it rather the case “that the world is topsy-turvy, that things are all wrong, that the wrong people are in jail and the wrong people are out of jail, that the wrong people are in power and the wrong people are out of power?” (Zinn 1972).

Civil disobedience is a principle-based political strategy that aims to influence laws or political measures by intentionally breaking the law. It is a contested concept in practice as well as in theory. Looking at historical examples, acts of civil disobedience seem to work on two levels: a confrontational level that is traditionally enacted physically, and a communication level  consisting of speech, presented as verbal expression, writing or body language. However, both levels stage an experienced injustice in a broad sense – it is not only about an unjust distribution of goods but about deficits in governance structures or procedures.

In this article I argue that a variety of new forms of civil disobedience challenge the traditional understanding and require us to re-think the concept for the digital age.

The rise of globally networked markets and communication infrastructure has led not only to a change in power relations but also to a transformation of resistance against them. The Internet, with its multi-level governance and transnational connections, makes tangible the influence of global companies and inter- or transnational governance on the everyday actions of humans. The Internet has become a tool and an arena for political dissidence in a multitude of ways, including new forms of civil disobedience.

The adoption of digital practices has given civil disobedience a new playground. This comes with new tools and and a new architecture that change both the confrontational and communicative level of civil disobedience. But how does this adoption of digital practices affect the paradigms of civil disobedience today?

One key change that digital adaptations of civil disobedience demonstrate – and maybe even intensify – is that civil disobedience has extended the framing paradigm beyond the state. The previous paradigm defined it as a dialectic action between state citizens and their government. However, by observing current practices, we see the need for a new understanding of  “civil” in civil disobedience that no longer refers to state citizenship, but to a broader understanding of this issue as a belonging to civil society regardless of nationality. Groups of actors collaborate via the Internet in “transversal” (Bentouhami 2007) movements that gather around their personal affection and concern about a topic.

On another level, we can see a semiotic change. The medium for civil disobedience has changed: What once was a physical confrontation and verbal or written speech is now code or pixels. Acts like website defacement or one of the first cases of digital civil disobedience, the “crypto controversy”, are, despite their differences in legal terms, examples of disobedient acts that consist in breaking the law by the unlawful use or manipulation of characters, symbols or pictures.

Another use of content for civil disobedience builds upon the internet’s capacity to create hyperreal narratives. Several campaigns by The Yes Men or the Peng! Collective involve staging websites that present a hyperreal narrative and provoke the reader with a fictional modification of reality.

The most discussed digital form of civil disobedience uses the internet’s architecture as a vehicle for protest: DDoS Actions, as used in the case of the Paypal 14. On one hand, the automation of resistance that DDoS implements, follows the paradigm of automation of human actions that characterizes our time; on the other hand this move toward automation raises normative questions about the consciousness, intentionality and control of actors.

Political Whistleblowing illustrates another shift in civil disobedience towards a kind of “epistemic disobedience”. Manohar Kumar, who suggests this term, explains: “Its need arises out of the informational asymmetry between the executive and the citizens. (…) We can define epistemic disobedience as an illegal act, done on behalf of others, to expose the wrong done under conditions of secrecy, with an intention to bring about change.” (Kumar 2013: 157)

Beyond these dimensions, of semiotic, narrative, architectural or epistemic character of civil disobedience, content has become a material in the context of protest against copyright law. Collective disobedience such as “the Grey Tuesday” defend the remix and its distribution as a legitimate production process of cultural goods.

Another new form of disobedience that often involves content is the violation of terms of service. Of course not every terms-of-service violation we commit on the Internet is a form of civil disobedience. But there are certain cases that can be considered as principle-based acts that break the law intentionally to influence a law or political measure, such as Aaron Swartz’ case. He was charged on the grounds of the American Computer Fraud and Abuse Act – not for copyright violations but for the violation of the terms of use of JSTOR and the MIT.

One motive that many new forms of civil disobedience have in common is to expand opportunities for participation, either by addressing the need for access to knowledge or by participating in political decision making processes.

By definition, civil disobedience is an illegal act, and all the examples I have mentioned come with very different legal consequences. The prosecution and charges against several cases that involve digital tactics, such as the Aaron Swartz or the Paypal 14 cases, lead to the impression that not only activists, but also governments take digital civil disobedience seriously. In my interpretation, governments overreact to disobedient acts, seeing them as a threat instead of as a call for political and democratic transformation. Nevertheless, not all practices that activists introduce as new forms of civil disobedience might be considered legitimate in the context of a political debate. But oftentimes, this is a question of the legitimacy of tactics rather than a question of the legitimacy of the critique they voice. By introducing new forms of civil disobedience, I do not want to imply that they all necessarily use the wisest, most appropriate and legitimate tactics. Still, some of the harsh punishments show a lack of balance and flexibility in criminal law that prevents it from appropriately addressing new forms of activism and a reasonable longing for change.

Each of these examples of transformation that I have hinted at with this article underline the need to rethink our understanding of civil disobedience for the digital age. Even though they match a minimal definition, as proposed here by Robin Celikates, they pose a multitude of questions for political philosophy and society that I am aiming to address in my PhD project.

If you have further interest in this topic, feel free to contact me, or read my latest article in the Journal Juridikum (published November 2014).

Photo: zeevveez

This post represents the view of the author and does not necessarily represent the view of the institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact

Theresa Züger, Dr.

Leiterin AI & Society Lab & Forschungsgruppe Public Interest AI

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