Internet offers new medium of protest, civil disobedience

Thursday, May 14, 1998

In leading a protest against a federal bill that would require Internet filtering software on school computers, the American Civil Liberties Union and two other civil rights groups decided to employ the very medium they hoped to protect.


On Monday, the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Electronic Privacy Information Center sponsored the “Cyber-March,” encouraging Internet users to send e-mail and faxes to their senators.


More than 2,000 responded, each sending letters urging the Senate to keep school computers unfiltered.


For the ACLU, a nonprofit group known for its petitioning power, the Internet provides a quick and easy venue for informing members—and, if the need arises, for assembling members.


“We can't be Chicken Little every day, but the fact is, the sky is falling every day on a lot of issues, and we need to let people know about it,” said Emily Whitfield, deputy media director. “If something new happens, we can let them know with another click.”


But protest measures like the Cyber-March aren't new, said Mark Rasch, an Internet consultant who formerly led the Justice Department's efforts to prosecute computer crime. In fact, he said, they are quite common.


“It is a trend and will be growing as the reach and the use of the Internet grows,” Rasch said. “But the use of the Internet as a means of protest goes back as far as the Internet itself.”


In the past, most would-be protesters either created home pages dedicated to their causes or organized e-mail drives, encouraging supporters to send a quick note to government officials.


In recent months, protesters have discovered others ways to vent. These include:


  • Virtual sit-ins. In New York, two computer designers developed a program called Flood Net, which automatically connects the user to a specific Web site and then reloads the site every seven seconds. The mass use is supposed to approximate an actual sit-in with the goal of disrupting the operation of the site.
  • Domain names. A mild but popular form of protest has been to secure Internet domain names associated with the person or topic of demonstration. Edward Taussig in New York recently opened www.ferraro.org. Instead of finding a campaign site for Senate candidate Geraldine Ferraro, visitors are greeted with “Vote D'Amato.” The page includes a link to the home page of Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., Ferraro's opponent.
  • Web page hacking. In some cases, Internet protesters have broken into Web sites to change their content. Last year, computer hackers broke into the Web site for the Steven Spielberg movie The Lost World and changed the theme from dinosaurs to ducks.

But some say such protests invite restriction.


Robert O'Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Free Expression, said speech on the Internet must remain as free as speech in more familiar venues. But just like a protest marcher or a pamphleteer, the virtual demonstrator could face restrictions comparable to the time, place and manner limitations placed on regular speech.


O'Neil offers as an example of protected speech, the posting of sexually explicit material on a university computer network.


“If, however, the posting of that material creates so much attention that it causes a traffic jam, then the system operator has to be able to take steps to maintain the welfare of the system,” he said.


“The material in the message is clearly protected,” O'Neil said. “But every so often we have to remind ourselves that no message is so clearly protected that some means for its dissemination may not be regulated.”


Time, place and manner restrictions on the Internet are difficult to monitor, Rasch said. Besides, the Internet is a much less invasive medium because it allows users to download and access material they want to see and use.


“The stuff exists and you grab it and you decide if you want it,” he said.


Rasch said Internet protesters would more likely run afoul of federal and state laws if they
were to intentionally distribute a program or software with the intent of damaging another computer system or Web site.


He said those with home pages must also adhere to the same laws as newspaper publishers and broadcasters. Their work is subject to “defamation laws, slander laws and copyright laws. So [to] individuals on the Internet saying, 'I don't have to worry about that' … you do. You're publishing something.”