THE GUARDIAN: There is no weapon on the planet more powerful than speech. In recent years, the digital revolution has led to new and unique ways for people to express themselves, and speech has flourished around the world, bringing it closer together. As a lawyer and as someone who promotes the advancement of individual liberties, I was fascinated by the advent of online speech, which was quickly followed by the advent of online protest. While affixing your e-signature to an online petition is a new and somewhat direct way to “petition your government for a redress of grievances”, I am most concerned with advocating for more immediate and effective manners of protest. So naturally, I was interested when, in December 2010, the hacktivist collective Anonymous voiced their displeasure with PayPal, over that company’s part in the banking blockade of Wikileaks.
A reported 10,000 protesters around the world took to the internet with a protest method known as DDoS (distributed denial of service) – the functional equivalent of repeatedly hitting the refresh button on a computer. With enough people refreshing enough times, the site is flooded with traffic, slowed, or even temporarily knocked offline. No damage is done to the site or its backing computer system; and when the protest is over, the site resumes business as usual. This is not “hacking“. It is protest, and it is speech.
True, customers of the site are temporarily inconvenienced, but democracy is often messy and inconvenient. Moreover, the voice of your fellow citizen should always be worth slowing down to hear for a moment. Exposure to new or differing views enriches us all. Such was the case with the 2010 PayPal DDoS protest. Or it was … until the United States government decided to serve 42 warrants and indict 14 protesters. While protest charges have typically been seen as tantamount to nuisance crimes, like trespassing or loitering, these were different. The 14 PayPal defendants, some of whom were teenagers when the protest occurred, find themselves looking at 15 years in federal prison – for exercising their free speech rights; for redressing their grievances to PayPal, a major corporation; for standing up for what they believed was right. MORE