WE'VE ALL HAD a chance to rest up from the WTO, and the tide of online political protest is ready to rise again. But that newest form of activism is wrestling with that oldest philosophical question: Do the means justify the ends?
In about a week, the Electrohippies collective will launch an Internet attack on the biotech industry. The group stepped into prominence during the WTO, handling over 100,000 page views each day and providing much of the best online coverage of the Battle of Seattle. The latest endeavor from the loosely organized group is a 12-day protest against genetically modified (GM) crops. Targets include Monsanto and GE Foods.
The action coincides with worldwide protests (rallies in Los Angeles! conferences in the Philippines! giant papier-m⣨頶egetable puppets in Wales!) scheduled by the larger "Resistance Is Fertile" collective. (For details, visit www.resistanceisfertile.com.) On Saturday, the e-hippies awarded Steven Milloy, a notoriously pro- GM-foods scientist at the right-wing Cato Institute, their April Fool Award for "significant contribution to the public's misunderstanding of science." Over the next few days they'll be running an e-mail lobbying effort and have other actions planned.
Things get weird on the 10th, though, when the e-hippies are planning a denial-of-service attack on various biotech sites. You remember denial-of-service (DoS); that's the packet blitz that shut down sites like Yahoo and eBay and eTrade in early February.
That DoS was the product of a relatively small group of miscreants, who were so remarkably stealthy that the targeted sites, the government, and the media spent days wondering who was behind the attacks and what, if anything, they meant. The e-hippies' plans, on the other hand, are quite clear about what they mean; also, they've enlisted not the handful of committed hellraisers that did the deed last winter but . . . you. If you want to. There's strength and safety in numbers, say the e-hippies, and numbers are what they're hoping to get.
BUT IS A DoS ATTACK a valid means of making a political point or is it merely— as some experienced hacktivists say—the online equivalent of shouting down an unpopular speaker? Established online activists have been vocally unimpressed with the Electrohippies' plan of attack. In particular, they're not wild about "packet wanking," as a recent Cult of the Dead Cow response referred to the DoS attacks in February. The venerable code godz of the cDc ("we put the 'hack' in 'hacktivism'") has criticized attempts by "left-leaners, Adbusters sympathizers, and wishful thinkers" to treat February's DoS attacks as political speech, since the perpetrators didn't themselves make such claims; now that the e-hippies are gearing up for their own DoS action, criticism has become sharper of not only the technique but the e-hippies' understanding of how the technology works.
THE NET'S FIRST high-profile activist action ("infowar") was the Zapatista movement in the Mexican state of Chiapas, which moved from a primarily military action (of Mexican military against the Zapatista rebels) to a war primarily of words. Zapatista leaders used the Net to keep the world informed; in turn, world opinion proved a powerful element in forcing the government to negotiate rather than simply slaughter the insurgents.
One of the main online tools used to protest the Mexican government's actions was FloodNet, developed by the Electronic Disturbance Theater as a way of doing "virtual sit-ins" on the Mexican government's computers. FloodNet is in a way a spiritual predecessor of what the e-hippies hope to do with the DoS, so it may be useful for you to know what happened to that tool: After a high-profile attack was launched against sites belonging to the Mexican presidency, the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, and the Pentagon, the Department of Defense took action against FloodNet and shut it down within hours, threatening the NYU folk hosting the coordinating site if they didn't remove the information ("issues of liability should be seriously considered on your part").
There's a good argument that direct Net actions do a badly needed end-run around a mass media that's become too homogenous, and that a DoS attack is less about abridging someone else's First Amendment rights and more about countering the disinformation put out by multinational concerns such as Monsanto. Certainly a lot of individual e-hippies are harder to catch than one FloodNet coordinator or a handful of DoS users (no matter how stealthy and apolitical). As you enter the e-hippies site you're asked two questions: whether you're you think they ought to conduct the DoS, and whether you take responsibility for your own e-hippie actions. Unfortunately, no one's got any good answers.