Cyberspace brings us ever-changing technologies and resulting social norms, some of which are often in tension with more traditional conventions. Nowhere is this tension more apparent than between intellectual property rights and free sharing of information online. Two recent online protests – one criminal and largely a failure, the other legal and successful – illustrate the dynamics of the emerging cyber society and economy.   

Anonymous, the online protest community, launched the latest of their “hactivist” cyber attacks, this time to protest against legal proceedings by the United States against a major file sharing site, MegaUpload. As with their previous actions, they succeeded in knocking some offending websites offline, but did not change any national policy. The other protest, the legal one, was more successful. Wikipedia, Reddit, and other online sites took themselves offline helping to persuade Congress to pull the plug on two controversial online piracy bills.  


With their signature Guy Fawkes masks, Anonymous has been active for five years but has only more recently entered the public consciousness after allowing their electronic tantrums to spread from online message boards to cyber attacks.  After international law enforcement took down MegaUpload and arrested its leadership on charges of abetting illegal sharing of movies and music, Anonymous dusted the preferred protest tool of hactivists (a portmanteau of “hacker” and “activist”), the distributed denial of service attack or DDoS. A DDoS is usually a small computer program run on thousands of computers at once, all directing Internet traffic at the same websites in order to overwhelm them, thuspreventing anyone else from accessing them.  

As a tactic, DDoS dates back to 1995 when the first hactivists, the Strano network, staged a “sit in” against the French government. Many hactivists see their protests in the same way, not as cyber crime or cyber terrorism (as it has been called) but as the equivalent of sitting in the lobby of a building, a relatively harmless way to enroll global supporters, get press coverage, and send a message.    While these attacks are indeed relatively harmless, there are some exceptions. Anonymous has not only used DDoS as a tactic, but also computer intrusions followed up with the release of sensitive corporate documents and personal information which have destroyed companies and probably caused hell for those people caught in the crossfire.

In the latest Anonymous protest, which they call #OpMegaUpload, the group appears to have accomplished little more than getting headlines and alienating many of their own supporters. The heads of MegaUpload are still under arrest and their site unavailable. Their protest attacks against the websites of the Department of Justice, FBI, and recording companies seems ultimately feckless, just as earlier Anonymous efforts have not overturned charges against Julian Assange of Wikileaks.  

Moreover, Anonymous apparently tricked some participants into joining the attack. Journalists and others passers-by have been enraged to their link-clicking did not reveal information about the attack, but instead generated attacks against the FBI! Even with this apparent subterfuge, Anonymous claimed only some 5,600 participants, far fewer than the 43,000 claimed in an earlier “netstrike” DDoS against the World Economic Forum (and Goldman Sachs, where I coordinated the response) in early 2002.

Announcing their attack on Twitter, Anonymous taunted that “The FBI didn’t think they would get away with this did they? They should have expected us.” Perhaps Anonymous should consider that the G Men did expect the online attacks but simply don’t care?

To have an influential voice, the members of Anonymous should learn their lessons from Wikipedia and the other media outlets that won their fight. Within 24-hours of the day-long Internet blackout, 18 senators (including 7 former sponsors) withdrew their support for the controversial SOPA and PIPA laws to vigorously enforce online intellectual property.  According to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia beloved by researchers and students, 162 million people viewed their blackout page with 8 million looking for instructions to lobby their congressman against SOPA and PIPA, which the site described as “proposed U.S. legislation that, if passed, will harm the free and open Internet.”   The LA Times compiled other numbers, reporting that some 75,000 websites joined the protest; 350,000 people sent emails to their congressman; and roughly 52,000 people signed an online petition at a White House website.

SOPA and PIPA may not be down for the count, but the Internet blackout, in effect a self-inflicted denial of service, was a powerful knockdown punch which shows the positive power of the content creators. And rather than using the puerile attack methods of Anonymous, the blackout websites showed they could use more traditional tactics to generate pressure against congressmen from their constituents. Molly Wood, the executive editor of online tech magazine CNET, highlighted the effect of the differing tactics this way,

If the SOPA/PIPA protests were the Web’s moment of inspiring, non-violent, hand-holding civil disobedience, #OpMegaUpload feels like the unsettling wave of car-burning…  [and] harden the perspective of legislators and law enforcement who want to believe that the Web community is made up of wild, law-breaking pirates.

There will be many more clashes between the established laws and norms and the emerging online society and digital natives. Anonymous and the Internet blackout websites have in the course of a single week shown us two, strongly contrasting forms of network civil disobedience with a clear lesson. 

The most effective online civil disobedience is not to lash out at others, but first create something worthwhile, then withhold it.   Most of the participating websites were not mega-sites like Wikipedia but small entrepreneurs, artists, and others that create Internet content for money, love, or simply as a creative outlet. This makes them particularly influential when they take a “non-violent, hand holding” stand, simultaneously depriving and enrolling their loyal fans. In contrast, it seems Anonymous seeks just to destroy – and thereby inspiring all the sympathy of a teenage tantrum.

“Internet blackout” is now part of the lexicon of cyber society, which won a battle to defeat controversial anti-piracy laws in the United States.   Regardless of your thoughts on those laws, we must encourage this style of protest because the alternative is not lawful and often ugly and violent.  Perhaps the cry of a modern Thomas Paine would be, “Long live the Internet. Long live Internet blackouts.” 

Jason Healey is the Director of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council of the United States. You can follow his comments on cyber cooperation, conflict and competition on Twitter, @Jason_Healey.

Related Experts: Jason Healey