Occupying the Internet: When New Media Artists Protest, by Hannah Collman

A New Avenue for Change

It turns out you don’t have to camp outside in a tent in frigid climes to pitch a successful protest. The Electronic Disturbance Theatre has been doing them comfortably since 1997. Using simple technologies such as E-mail, HTML, and Java, the EDT has managed to launch a series of “denial of service attacks” on corrupt regimes from the Mexican Stock Exchange to the World Trade Organization. These attacks focus not on the places themselves, but on their websites.

The Medium Involved

The strategy? Simple. Disable the sites of corrupt politicians, corporations, and organizations in a form of hindrance similar to camping out in front of the actual buildings. In 1998, the founder of the EDT, Ricardo Dominguez, developed a Java applet called FloodNet. He and his compatriots solicited the aid of social and political activists around the globe to run the program. Using this tactical media, supporters went online to specified sites such as those of past Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the Mexican Stock Exchange, Chase Manhattan Bank, and the World Trade Organization, and asked for “bad URLs”—or, web pages that don’t actually exist on those sites. They requested a myriad of poignant and unapproachable things, such as “names of Zapatistas killed by the Mexican Army in military attacks on the autonomous village of Acteal,” and in return received an error message for each “bad” URL. As the error messages built up, the site would carry in its log a gross mountain of injustices, as if it were “returning the dead to those responsible for their murders.” This force of hactivism, if employed by enough people simultaneously, would even cause the server to crash.

The Future                                                          

This is not the EDT’s end goal, however. Dominguez asserts that the idea is not to “destroy or disrupt these Web sites,” but to “disturb.” He bases this internet activist movement on the standard of the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, a march of civil disobedience which strove to proceed honestly and openly. No fake names, counter-assassinations, or site destruction here. The participants save all data, so that their own actions may be called into account, not just those of the people and ideas they are protesting against. They want to annoy as “paper airplanes,” and not bombard with actual bombs. As Wray noted in his mapping of electronic civil disobedience, ” Despite the current levels of political, tactical, and technical questions that are being raised about hacktivism et al, it seems to be an area that is in a period of expansion, rather than contraction” (par 43).

The movement is, after all, rooted in the unifying principles of artists, not anarchists. It is an amalgamation of the aesthetic concepts of art and the ethical support of those struggling against the ongoing scourge of governmental oppression, such as the indigenous Zapatista people of Chiapas, Mexico (See Mark Tribe’s writing on the group). It is a practical system. It enables ordinary people, who cannot afford the “ear of the New York Times” or a spot on daily television, to speak their minds. It is an innovative system, progressing from the “Zapatista Disturbance Developer’s Kit” of 1999 to other realms of “online civil disobedience software,” and perhaps new media not yet invented. Interested to see where it goes?

See in particular, Wray, Stefan. Electronic Civil Disobedience and the World Wide Web of Hactivism: A Mapping of Extraparliamentarian Direct Action Net Politics. Switch 4(2).

Blas, Zach. On Electronic Civil Disobedience: Interview with Ricardo Dominguez. b.a.n.g. lab Blog. December 5, 2011.