Towards a New Framework for the Ethical Analysis of Activist DDOS Actions | MIT Center for Civic Media

Towards a New Framework for the Ethical Analysis of Activist DDOS Actions

In this project I am continuing my work on creating an framework for the ethical analysis of activist DDOS actions. Though distributed denial of service attacks have been used as a tool of digital activism for the past two decades, the past few years has seen an explosion in the popularization of the tactic and a sharp increase in the attention its use attracts from the media and state actors. All this attention has brought with it loud criticism from various stakeholders in the digital space, including other digital activists. However, both the tactic's critics and defenders seek to declare the tactic as a whole good or bad, without a nuanced understanding of the variety of circumstances and contexts which can render the tactic's use ethical or unethical. In this paper, I aim to lay down the preliminaries for a framework by which to perform an ethical analysis of activist DDOS actions.

This framework seeks to address the three major criticisms of activist DDOS actions: that they are the equivalent of censorship, that as symbolic activism they are not as effective as direct action, and that they have unfocused success conditions. I then incorporate my rebuttals to these criticisms into the three factors which make up the current ethical framework: intended effects and actual effects; the tactic's context within the greater campaign; and the technology utilized. These factors are further illustrated with historical examples of DDOS actions from the past twenty years.

If activist DDOS actions are to continue to be a tool in the repertoire of digital activism, there needs to be a structured method for determining the ethical validity of those actions. This is necessary both for the benefit of organizers considering the use of the tactic, as well as for the legal and political arguments that arise as activists push for the tactic's widespread acceptance and legitimacy.

As the framework continues to develop, additional factors to consider include the role of state and state related actors in this actions, both from the perspective of states as targets of such tactics, but also the roles of semi-state actors, such as patriotic hackers, who use tactics like DDOS in the name of or with the tacit support of states. How does an individual's or organization's relationship with the rhetorics of state power affect their activism? Given the ability of online activism to attract a wide variety of participants with varying levels of experience with the risks and practices of political activism, the makeup of the participant and organizer pool must also be considered. Particularly relevant to this discussion are the levels of training, support, and contextual information provided by the organizers, especially in the areas of risk awareness and enabling the informed consent of all participants.

In its current form, this framework only operates as a reflective tool, appropriate for the analysis of actions after they have occurred. However, as more events are analyzed, predictive models can be abstracted which can then be used in the planning of future actions.

I presented some preliminary work on this ethical framework over the summer at HOPE, and I'll be taking this paper to 29c3 in Hamburg at the end of the month. In fact this work is making up the bulk of my thesis. I'd love to hear any comments you might have on the paper, which is linked below!