Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Electronic Civil Disobedience

Henry David Thoreau wrote in his revolutionary essay, “Civil Disobedience”, "I heartily accept the motto…That government is best which governs least;…and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out it finally amounts to this, which I also believe…That government is best which governs not at all." Civil disobedience may be defined as a non-violent direct action involving denials of service, occupation, and obstruction. Sit-ins, protests in front of official’s buildings, blocking entranceways, and creating formations that are civilly disruptive. Civil disobedience has been present in America since the beginning of her battle against England for independence.

The Tea Act, Quartering Act, and Stamp Act led up to the Boston Tea Party among several different types of boycotts performed by colonial citizens that showed England they were pushing towards an American democracy. In 1848, Henry David Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax. Paying it would support the war against Mexico, something that Thoreau thoroughly opposed. His essay
“Civil Disobedience” emerged from his actions and his teachings have become integrated into the foundations of The United States of America. Years later, women fought for the right to vote and succeeded in 1920 with the 19th Amendment.

Fourty-eight years later, in 1968, evolving from the Civil Rights Movement, civil disobedience became an important and pervasive tactic used by protestors of the United States
war against Vietnam. In 1971, Howard Zinn and twenty thousand people opposing the United States War with Vietnam gathered at Washington and committed civil disobedience by tying up Washington D.C. traffic to express their anger and repulsion against the killing going on in Vietnam. Zinn among fourteen thousand others were arrested, the largest mass arrest in American history. Zinn and protestors chose civil disobedience to protest the Vietnam war. He says in his speech at Washington:
A lot of people are troubled by civil disobedience. As soon as you talk about committing civil disobedience, they get a little upset. That is exactly the purpose of civil disobedience: to upset people, to trouble them, to disturb them. We who commit civil disobedience are disturbed too and we need to disturb those who are in charge of a war
These forms of civil unrest and defiance have shaped United States history and altered the laws, practices, and policies of the American government. Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”, shook America and over 150 years later has influenced thousands to revolt against the evils of government. As time moves on, the tactics of civil disobedience have become even more prevalent and accessible in modern society.

The form of civil disobedience is steadily becoming altered. Telegraphs and railroads in Thoreau’s time, television in the 1960s, and today the usage of the personal computer advances the information that is being spread to the public. Cyber-activism allows a means for activists to communicate with one another and across international borders. As cyber activists join together, they engage in what becomes more popularly known as electronic civil disobedience.

Electronic civil disobedience is comprised of the same ideas present in civil disobedience but just transferring them over to the internet. Clearly, the physical aspects of civil disobedience are not present among electronic civil disobedience, however, the trespassing and blockading is applied in a different way—in digital form. Hacking the internet to perform electronic civil disobedience creates a whole new realm of places for protest in cyberspace. Virtual sit-ins are demonstrated where government and corporate web sites are blocked, prevent usage and allow activists to protest. Keith Parkins writes that “direct action in cyberspace is one end of the spectrum of infowar, where aggressive infowar can be seen as the cyberspace equivalent of physical warfare. The virtual sit-in, the equivalent to a physical site occupation.” Cyberspace gathers thousands just as the protests against the Vietnam War did among the streets in Washington. Cyber-activism creates a place where information can be shared rapidly and throughout cyberspace. The non-violent civil disobedience in history that has suspended government and corporate agencies is related to non-violent e-mail assaults capable of shutting down or suspending government or corporate servers. Electronic civil disobedience stands as an important element in radicalizing social movements on a cyberspace international level. Governments and corporations are now more aware of the potential threat of electronic civil disobedience created by cyber-activism. The flood of information through cyber-activism and the action taken because of that information, electronic civil disobedience, has greatly impacted the way people join together to protest and has certainly reformed the tactics of ordinary non-violent civil disobedience. And it all began with a revolution…

A revolution that began as history has allowed it to come to pass as people have for centuries displayed acts of social rebellion to obtain something of truth and valor. Henry David Thoreau’s essay
“Civil Disobedience”, however, taught the method and has influenced courageous activists for over 150 years. In an attempt to discuss the frontier and endless possibilities that electronic activism and civil disobedience will have upon the world, I will throughout a series of future blog posts discuss the history, current world-wide electronic civil disobedient movements, social networking, and various other topics that revolutionize the cyber world into a world that is greatly impacting the world. Standing for justice and fighting for the sanctification of human rights, Thoreau declares that “unjust laws exist” and asks fellow citizens “shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded or shall we transgress them at once?” Civil disobedience, including its various forms, opts to amend and fix problems found within government and if all else fails, to stand for justice and transgress the evil laws.


  1. Wow. This is fantastic.
    Not gonna lie, I tend not to be a fan of long blog posts. In fact, I can't remember the last really long blog post I read besides this one. But this one kept my attention and was worth the extra two minutes or whatever.
    Keep writing, dear, you are quite good at it :)

  2. Audrey! So good! I am a big fan! You did a great comprehensive over-view of the different forms civil disobedience takes and made it very pertinent to current society! Really, well written! I do have one question, is it fair to say that Thoreau influenced these events of civil disobedience or that he wrote on civil disobedience. In other words, is the literature the reason for the acts or more just a comment on this type of disobedience? It seemed like you were pushing the thought that each of these acts was influenced by Thoreau and for all I know they might have been! But like I said, I am really impressed with your very comprehensive review of this topic! Great job = )!

  3. I'm kind of wondering the same thing as Becca. Are you arguing that digital civil disobedience came about BECAUSE of Thoreau, or are his writings just a convenient way to summarize what civil disobedience is? Like you pointed out, he wrote after the civil disobedience of the American Revolution, so you might have a hard time arguing that he alone is the spur behind all civil disobedience that occurs now. I'm also wondering if you have other articles or sources that parallel what's going on in the digital world with civil disobedience. Maybe that's for future posts! Anyway, really interesting!

  4. Thanks Christine! Becca and Heather, you brought up some valuable points that have me thinking. And yes Heather, I have loads of other articles and sources that parallel what's going on in the digital world with civil disobedience. Thanks.

  5. One question I have is whether electronic civil disobedience does something that more traditional, in-person civil disobedience does not do. What does it add? Keith Parkins, for instance, talks about an "equivalence" between the two...but is it more than just being equivilant? Would we be missing something if electronic civil disobedience did not exist?Also, does it have limitations? Are there things that it does not do that more traditional modes need to fill in for?