Electronic Civil Disobedience and Collective Interruption Online by Ryan Griffis

In the second part of a series on the Future of Academic Freedom and the Arts, Ryan Griffis, Associate Professor in the School of Art and Design, considers the politics of collaboration in networked virtual protest. While hacktivist groups like Anonymous have made networked social justice campaigns and distributed denial of service attacks (DDoS) the stuff of front page news today, such actions share their roots with earlier forms of civil disobedience, sit-in actions, and embodied localized disruptions. Here, Griffis explores protest protocols, acts of digital and physical interruption, and scholarly swarms that test the limits of protected symbolic speech. – ac 

FloodNet represents a collective weapon of presence.

Your IP address will be harvested by the government during any FloodNet action. When you click and enter FloodNet, your name and political position will be made known to the authorities. FloodNet may not impact the targeted websites specifically as much as it disrupts traffic going to the targeted website.


This was a warning statement written for potential participants in an event that was simultaneously a work of theatrical performance art and an instance of direct action in solidarity with the Zapatistas and the uprisings in Chiapas. Titled SWARM, the event was staged in September of 1998, by an interdisciplinary collective known as the Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT) as part of Ars Electronica, an international new media festival in Linz, Austria. Using a simple browser-based tool called FloodNet, SWARM was a virtual sit-in of the websites of the President of Mexico, the Pentagon and the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. The group considered their FloodNet software to be an extension of the sit-in tactic since its effects were proportional to the number of people participating—each participant used the tool to send repeated requests to the target website’s servers with the intention of impeding that server’s ability to respond.


A couple of years before SWARM, another art collective, Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), theorized how established tactics of civil disobedience would port to networked environments, arguing for an electronic civil disobedience that continued non-violent means of trespass and blocking. Importantly, CAE and EDT differentiated electronic civil disobedience from illegal defacements or disruptions to web servers and also from what are called Denial of Service Attacks (automated disruptions of fax machines and email and web servers that can be carried out by single individual).


While tools like FloodNet do a small amount of automation, it requires very large numbers of people – acting in collaboration — to have any impact, and that impact is primarily understood as symbolic. It also depends on what the EDT calls “radical transparency”—each sit-in is announced and there is no attempt to conceal the identity of its participants. Even the backend code of FloodNet foregrounds the symbolic by making requests for non-existent documents from the server, such as a document called “peace” on the Pentagon’s server, which would return a 404 “bad request” error message stating that “peace” could not be found on the Pentagon website. While the virtual sit-ins of the EDT were largely differentiated from hacking by the authorities, representatives of the Justice Department and the Rand Corporation, were on record by the late 1990s, calling virtual sit-ins “criminal attempts to damage another’s website,” an “aggressive” forms of sabotage, and even terrorism.


The EDT has continued its research and deployment of virtual sit-ins, while expanding its work with a recent project titled the Transborder Immigrant Tool. This project is, in part, a piece of software that runs on inexpensive mobile phones and uses the devices’ native GPS function to map the location of humanitarian-placed water stations near the US-Mexico border while also delivering what the group calls “poetic sustenance” (in how it “reads” experimental poetry about borders). Another part of the project is what the group calls its simulationist function—whether the project is ever functionally used by people to cross the desert, it intervenes in the cultural imagination and discourse of borders (both territorial and cultural).


In 2010, Fox News and some California senators called the work and its researchers “traitorous,” and went so far as to pressure the Office of the President at the University of California to revoke tenure for a lead researcher on the project, UCSD professor Ricardo Dominguez. At the request of the University President’s Office, the FBI initiated a series of investigations into potential “financial damages” caused to the University by the EDT’s work, which also included a virtual sit-in of the President’s website in solidarity with the student protests that were happening. Following a very public response by Dominguez’s supporters, the investigations were dropped and the University settled, with Dominguez retaining his position, receiving tenure, and even receiving an accommodation.


I wanted to use this brief, simplified review of electronic civil disobedience to introduce some of the problematics that exist as the space for speech acts expands and becomes subject to regimes of power in different ways. As with previous forms of civil disobedience, electronic civil disobedience is a meeting of bodies demanding recognition from institutions of power. The technical codes governing electronic speech represent another (although not distinct) tentacle of the ideological forces that maintain unevenness between differently abled, gendered, classed, racialized and politicized bodies. If embodied sounds and images reach us through a sensory contact with the world governed by social conventions and laws, the net’s method of packet switching and our social media news feeds deliver a montage of utterances sorted by various algorithmic processes including time, author, conversation threads, and geolocated IP addresses.


In this context: What constitutes an utterance? What are the borders of a speech act that can be endlessly redeployed as evidence, turning one speech act into another? How do we hold accountable, not just individuals who may be speaking, but the organizations that seek to control and regulate speech? Is the regulation of speech, even by means of protocol, not also itself speech? How can we be disobedient to protocols without simply being kicked out, or ignored, by them? These seem like especially pressing questions as the regulation of, and access to, speech is increasingly routed through both literal and metaphorical black boxes.

Additional Links:

Ryan Griffis is an artist teaching in the School of Art & Design at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Under the name Temporary Travel Office, Ryan has created work and publications that use tourism as an opportunity for critical public encounters. He also currently works with various collective efforts to document and challenge the conditions of neoliberalism in the Midwest. See more at: http://www.yougenics.net/griffis, http://www.temporarytraveloffice.net, http://www.regionalrelationships.net, and http://midwestcompass.org.


About anitacks

assistant professor of media and cinema studies at the university of illinois at ubana-champaign. + digital ethnography, inter-disciplinary approaches to media and technology studies, and hybrid pedagogies. engaged in research on/with innovation policy and practices, global digital cultures and translocal interventions, latin american science and technology studies.
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