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Legitimate forms of protest in the 21st Century

About The Author

Chris Bridges (Executive Editor)

Chris is an IT and Data Protection solicitor at a top 20 full service firm and the founder of Keep Calm Talk Law. He also contributes to Computers and Law and other sector specific publications.

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We live in an age of rapid change. Fifteen years ago, mobile phones were like bricks and had two functions, text messaging and phone calls. Today mobile phones are much more powerful than the computers we relied on 15 years ago. It is undeniable that technology has exploded in recent years.

However, have other things progressed at the same rate, particularly ‘digital protest’?

When we use the word protest, the image that comes to mind will be of many (or sometimes few) people getting together in one confined space in order to demonstrate their objection to something. Sometimes these will become violent, but overall, in the UK at least, protests remain peaceful. This idea of protest is protest in its traditional form that has changed little in the thousands of years it has likely existed.

You may believe that it does not need to change, as it is still an effective way to demonstrate dissent and drive change. However, many would also argue that this form of protest in the 21st Century has become ineffective, and people are being driven to protest in other ways.

Here, it is not of concern which methods of protest are most effective, but what other forms of protest should be permitted in the age that we live in? I discuss two methods of protest here, another age-old form of protest, discrimination, which has likely been around as long as our traditional form of protest. Second, I discuss a new form of protest, which has only come to significance in the 21st Century, ‘online sit ins’.

The word protest itself is defined by the Oxford dictionary as:

a statement or action expressing disapproval of or objection to something

Here, we accept this definition but add that typically a protest will seek to bring about change. By collectively demonstrating dissent, we are able to influence decision makers. This may be in a political context where a section of the electorate seek to collectively put pressure on the government to change their policy, implement, or repeal a law. It may also seek to influence a private entity such as a company, for instance animal rights protestors forming picket lines outside pharmaceutical companies headquarters in the hope that the companies will stop testing their products on animals.

It must also be added that often (but not always) protests seek to cause disruption. Whilst sometimes the volume of protestors alone may encourage change, often it does not and protestors might resort to disruptive tactics. Industrial action (strikes) are an example of this. By refusing to work, protestors seek to force a change of policy, as without a work force, services or companies can be crippled. Often the volume of people present at a protest may in itself create disruption due to blocked roads and the strain it places on resources (such as police personnel).

Discrimination as a form of protest

While this is by no means a modern form of protest, it is a form of protest that used to be more socially acceptable than it is today. Take for instance discrimination on racial grounds. For many years society treated anyone of non-white dissent as an inferior citizen, in the most extreme cases when there was a slave trade, they were physically made subordinate to their white masters.

In the modern era, this cannot be condoned, and anyone who did so would be frowned upon by society. However, at the time, this was acceptable. By treating someone differently due to their skin colour, society were demonstrating disapproval of other ethnicities.

But to what extent is discrimination still a legitimate form of protest? As Tom discussed in his article yesterday, the UK Supreme Court recently decided that a couple could not turn away guests at their hotel on the grounds that they disapproved of homosexuality, and disagreed that civil partnerships were commensurate to marriage. Again, this will likely come as no surprise. We live in an age where discrimination is rarely ever acceptable.

Under the Human Rights Act 1998, we have a human right not to be discriminated against by public bodies. Moreover, as discussed by Tom yesterday, where public bodies are not concerned, we are afforded extensive protection from discrimination by the Equality Act 2010. With such extensive legislation against discrimination, it becomes doubtful whether discrimination could ever be a form of legitimate protest in the modern age. Anyone who seeks to protest by discriminating is likely to fall on the wrong side of the law prompting repercussions in the form of civil fines, or even in the extreme cases criminal prosecution and custodial sentence.

You may point to the Burqa ban as an example of discrimination being permitted, which is openly debated here in the UK, and has actually come into force in France. However those arguing for a burqa ban often seek to rely on non-discriminatory arguments such as security to support their assertions, with the knowledge that a ban on discriminatory grounds would not be socially acceptable. Therefore, even here it cannot be said discrimination is being treated as a legitimate form of protest.

In fact, it is hard to think of any situation where society would consider discriminatory protest legitimate.

Digital protest

The digital age we live in has borne a new form of protest. You may recall that back in 2010 Paypal, MasterCard, Visa and Amazon among many other websites were crippled by a denial of service attack (DoS).

For those readers unaware of the terminology, a DoS attack can be considered as an ‘online sit in’. Thousands of internet users around the world made repeated requests in a short timeframe, flooding the victims’ servers with requests meaning most legitimate requests to the webpages by actual users were unable to be served. When thought of as an online sit in, it is hard to see much difference between this and thousands of people forming outside of a business, forcing it to shut, which has often happened with no repercussions for the non-violent protestors involved.

It should be noted that DoS attacks may sometimes not be considered as online sit ins. In some cases, a hacker may plant a client on thousands of infected machines allowing him to orchestrate a DoS attack single handedly without the consent of the participants. Needless to say, this cannot be considered an online sit in, however in these attacks many of those involved actively took part.

The attack was co-ordinated by the pressure group Anonymous, to demonstrate dissent of a decision by the victims to refuse payments to WikiLeaks, a website responsible for the distribution of many highly confidential leaks from governments and public bodies around the world. These payments were donations, not payment for illicit services.

This week thirteen defendants pleaded guilty to the attacks in December 2010 in Californian Courts. At least in some cases (if not all) this was not because they believed what they had done was wrong, it was because they stood next to no chance of winning their cases. (If you are interested in the story of anonymous and a number of the protestors that were the subject of the aforementioned court case, I thoroughly recommend the documentary ‘We Are Legion: The Story of Hacktivists’.

US Courts are not alone in handing down judgement against such activities. The UK Courts have imposed custodial sentences on participants of this protest.

While the press and courts label these people as ‘hackers’, it may be a somewhat inaccurate term for them, and the many others that were not put on trial. Can it really be said that someone is guilty of ‘hacking’ by doing what is commensurate to turning up at a physical protest? I cannot condone hackers in the true sense of the word, those that infect others computers to orchestrate such an attack. However, I do not see how someone who actively takes part, using his or her own computer, can be labelled a hacker, or found guilty of a felony.

To demonstrate how such an attack can be seen as a legitimate form of protest, I will compare a DoS attack to the hypothetical example of a group of protestors protesting a train company’s use of train parts that have been sourced from a sweatshop.

The 4,000 protestors arrive together at a sleepy small train station that is ill equipped to deal with this volume of passengers. By all queuing for the single turnstile at the same time, they succeed in crippling the train station for the two hours it takes all of the protestors to pass (a rough estimate). This renders the train station useless to the few hundred commuters that were planning to use the train station that morning. This would likely be seen as a legitimate protest, and would not provoke civil or criminal proceedings against the protestors.

Ultimately, this would be a poor protest – to get through the turnstiles the protestors would have had to buy tickets, therefore boosting the train company’s revenues. If they did not, they would likely be ejected from the train station for trespass. However, you do not have to buy a ticket to access a website, so turn the aforementioned ticket turnstiles into free turnstiles, and we have two situations that are effectively the same. Thousands of users accessing Paypal’s website are protesting in the same way as the thousands of protestors that flood the sleepy train station’s turnstiles.

For a digital company such as Paypal, it can be argued that this is the only way to hit them. After all, customers do not come and go to Paypal’s physical premises, therefore forming a picket line or attempting to cause disruption there will likely have no influence on what the company decides to do.

This method of protest has been called ‘cyber terrorism’ and has provoked both civil and criminal law suits around the world. However, I believe that this is quite simply society failing to adapt at the same rate technology has progressed.

Disclaimer: Personally I believe by blocking transactions to WikiLeaks, Paypal was itself protesting against the activities of an organisation. Both parties are entitled to an opinion, and both should be able to voice this even if it must be through action rather than words. If Paypal are permitted to protest via action, surely Anonymous’ ‘Legion’ should be able to do the same?

The 21st Century has seen discrimination go out the window as a legitimate form of protest. However, we cannot only disregard dated forms of protest; we must accept the new ones. In the 21st Century, ‘virtual businesses’ such as Paypal are commonplace, and at present it is extremely difficult to influence such businesses.

I personally would rarely ever condone protest by disruption. However, it is generally recognised by society as acceptable if it is the only way to convey a message. Where a business services its customers by digital means, as do the companies that were targeted in 2010, how else are dissenting consumers meant to make themselves heard?

As I generally disagree with protest by disruption, I would never involve myself in such a protest. Nevertheless, I cannot agree with those that call this form of protest ‘cyber terrorism’. By illegalising such activities, society is curbing the right to protest.

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Tagged: Discrimination, Human Rights, Technology

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