On October 29, 2014, The Berkman Center hosted Civic Media alum Molly Sauter in a "fireside chat" with Nieman Fellow Laurie Penny about Molly's new book The Coming Swarm: DDOS, Hactivism, and Civil Disobedience on the Internet. This is a liveblog of that conversation (not a transcript), co-written with Dalia Othman and Kendra Albert.
Laurie: Can you tell us please what is a DDOS?
Molly: How many people have younger siblings, and you may have gone to Disneyland? I have a little brother, and when we were going to Disney wherever, he would be like "Hey Molly! Hey Molly! Hey Molly!” repeatedly. Now, imagine your younger sibling is a server saying that to you over and over and over again. That’s a DDOS. Pinging a targeted server a bunch of times until it falls done. An activist DDOS is doing this with whitehouse.gov as the target. And there was a time when that was a reasonable action: on 4pm on a Wednesday, you would coordinate and start refreshing the page on whitehouse.gov and crashing it with your friends.
Laurie: I didn’t realize that this is something that has a long history, it spans long before wikileaks and Anonymous’s DDOS attacks then, it goes back to the WTO Battle for Seattle.
Molly: DDOS has been around at least since the early 1990s. For example, Quebec redphoning: calling the same political switchboard. Flood your congressman with more mail than they can read. Those are types of DDOS.
The Strano Network Net Strike was the first example back in 1995(?) that Molly found. Italian group attacking a French nuclear company. Electronic Disturbance Theater (that were involved with the zapatistas) and Electrohippies were both American groups who did activist DDOS in the 1990s
Laurie: Can you break that down a little bit, can you talk more about attention getting versus direct action?
Molly: Attention getting activism is a good way of describing the paradigm of activist intervention that we see contemporarily. Through press coverage of the intervention, you gain the attention you need to put it on the political agenda. Direct action is instead about working on the issue you want to make change on. Spiking trees to stop logging, or sending out your own ships to drive off whales from whaling ships in environmental activism and Electrohippies stopping the WTO from emailing itself.
Laurie: Protest is when I say I don’t like a thing, resistance is when I stop that thing from happening. So where does DDOS fall?
Molly: It really can be on either side of the spectrum. It depends on what your goals are. It's so easy with DDOS, where activists will direct the press toward an issue or target by DDOSing them. It's easier to do an attention-getting DDOS now than ever before - but much more difficult for you and your friends to take down servers on your own, because of advances in web infrastructure.
Laurie: Can we talk about Operation Payback linked to Anonymous? Especially for journalists in the room, that was a big deal, I remember that I did trying to learn the background.
Molly: Operation Payback was in the late fall / early winter of 2010. Everyone remembers Cablegate and Wikileaks in this room, right? The US government got upset over the cables publication and asked financial institutions to stop enabling funding of Wikileaks.
Anonymous was already, confusingly enough, involved in an action called "Operation Payback" targeting the MPAA and RIAA. They expanded their target pool to VISA, MasterCard, a Swedish banking site, and several congress member's sites. This lasted for a about a week, also under the name "Operation Avenge Assange."