Disobedience Technology: Notes on a lecture

This lecture had the goal of introducing theories and methodologies behind civil disobedience in order to give the class the tools to identify legitimate acts of civil disobedience compared to lawlessness.

We began with the example of Socrates whose principled stand was that the law must be obeyed. In Plato’s text Crito we find Socrates in jail awaiting execution. His friends argue that he should escape.

But Socrates argues that the Laws exist as one entity, to break one would be to break them all. He cannot chose to obey the rules that suit him and disregard those which he doesn’t approve of.

The citizen is bound to the Laws like a child is bound to a parent, and so to go against the Laws would be like striking a parent. Rather than simply break the Laws and escape, Socrates should try to persuade the Laws to let him go. These Laws present the citizen’s duty to them in the form of a kind of social contract. By choosing to live in Athens, a citizen is implicitly endorsing the Laws, and is willing to abide by them. (Wikipedia)

This principled stand cost Socrates his life. However, most proponents of civil disobedience argue that there must be a way of following some rules while disobeying others. This disobedience must find legitimacy in other sources.

Greek mythology dealt with this issue in the story of Antigone where at one stage after a battle King Creon decreed that the dead were not to be buried. Antigone defied the law and buried her brother. She knew of the law and defied it knowingly arguing that she was bound by a superior divine law.

Continuing on this theme we looked at some of the classics of disobedience. Thoreau’s arguments that we are sometimes obliged to defy the government, Gandhi’s belief that we have a duty to disobey the unjust leader (and the example of the salt march), and Martin Luther King’s words that an unjust law is against God’s law.

“For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’…We must come to see…that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’…One may well ask, ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust…One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” (King Letter from Birmingham Jail)

These positions all argue that there is a higher moral authority that would make it legitimate to disobey rules. Indeed, King underscores that disobedience in such cases is a moral responsibility.

The argument against disobedience remains in the area of the social contract and the question about who could legitimately argue for the rules to be held or broken? In his Theory of Justice, John Rawles agreed that that there are situations where laws should not be followed and attempts to prevent “simple” lawlessness by stressing that disobedience is:

…a public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act contrary to the law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government.

H. A. Bedau argued in Civil Disobedience in Focus that in order for disobedience to be legitimate it should be

“committed openly…non-violently…and conscientiously…within the framework of the rule of law…with the intention of frustrating or protesting some law, policy or decision…of the government.”

While Peter Singer stressed

…if the aim of disobedience is to present a case to the public, then only such disobedience as is necessary to present this case is justified…if disobedience for publicity purposes is to be compatible with fair compromise, it must be non-violent.

These positions can be summed up with the idea that certain acts of disobedience are necessary in order to bring a minority position to the attention of the majority. However, in order to maintain its legitimacy, acts of disobedience must be carried out openly, non-violently, purposely, aimed at a specific rule or policy, by people prepared to accept the consequences.

Despite this, there are still critiques aimed at groups that attempt to disrupt via acts of civil disobedience. Often the arguments against disobedience are:

  • CD is not defensible in a democracy as the social contract is established and maintained by the people for the people.
  • CD is illegitimate as it subverts the equality embedded in the democratic process itself.
  • CD can only be acceptable if ALL other (democratic) methods have been exhausted

These critiques are easily enough met if we look at the American civil rights movement. The activists chose not to entrust the democratic process since the process is an endless one and does not necessarily promote change, but can be used to re-enforce established ideas. As King writes: ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’ The outlook for social change, brought about from within the system was bleak. By challenging the rules it became more and more clear to the majority that the rules were harmful and needed to be changed.

We then spoke of moving disobedience online. Discussing the ways in which technology can be used to support activism. At the same time our technology use has also created a system in which our activism has been trivialised and subverted. Social media is efficiently used to promote and spread information about injustice. However, social media is also used to trivialize political acts. We click on LIKE icons, re-Tweet links, and share videos but what does it all mean?

Is this Postman‘s dystopia (Amusing ourselves to Death) in action?

The slides

Are we secure yet?

Thankfully the term “war on terrorism” seems to have fallen out of fashion. Unfortunately the threat of terrorism is being used to systematically and creatively remove civil liberties. At some point a society must ask itself if the security needed to prevent terrorism is in itself an act of terrorism and repression.

Unfortunately all the silliness is not confined to high government (even though a lot of the silliness originates from there). In times of tension the wacko’s, weirdo’s and sociopaths step forward and fill the lower levels of the security system. These are the working stiffs in the security system. Heady with power and filled with self importance they are responsible for degrading ordinary people all in the name of terrorism and security. In reality it’s all for their own little ego’s.

You think I may be exaggerating?  Then give me some better explanations for these:

A man trying to fly British Airways to Dusseldorf was told that he could not board the plane wearing the t-shirt he had on. The offending t-shirt had a picture of Megatron (a 40 foot tall cartoon robot with a gun as an arm).

In Canada (Kelowna Airport, British Columbia) a PhD student was not allowed to board the plane because she wore a necklace with a pendant in the shape of a gun (a silver classic Colt45, under two inches in length with no moving parts) story and photo here.

A classic example of misguided airport security in relation to clothes is Raed Jarrar’s experience at JFK where he was forced to take off a shirt with Arabic writing on it or miss his flight; new BBC article. The story upset many people but inspired some: You can now buy t-shirts from Casual Disobedience with text “I am not a terrorist” in Arabic. I bought one and it is among my favorites.

Another classic is when John Gilmore was refused carriage by British Airways recently for declining to take off a button that read “Suspected Terrorist”.

These are only examples relating to clothes or jewelry in relation to airport security – there are plenty of stories of offending clothing (political, not sexual) that have got people detained or arrested. I think I need to develop this into a full length article…

Thoughts in the London Drizzle

Its kind of sad when wifi rules your thoughts and I am pretty sure that their are lots of ways of rationalizing the need for an internet connection but I must admit it is pretty sad. Sad people should be pitied but when it comes to Internet connections they are not pitied they are preyed upon. The prices hotels seem to think they can charge (maybe they can) for a connection are absolutely ridiculous. Amazingly enough the better the hotel the higher they want to charge – it should sort of be the other way around. The hotel last night only had wifi in the lobby and wanted to charge 80 pounds for a 24 hour connection!!!! This was a new record for me and naturally I went without until today when I can scrounge off someone else.

After arriving yesterday I gave a lecture at the LSE on Disobedience and Resistance in Online Environments – it went very well and the students were quick to join the discussion. Today I will be discussing PhD projects with four students and then its out in the London drizzle. Thanks to the Internet connection I uploaded the last of the Ljubljana pictures – the city is a very cool center for innovative street art.

The rest of my photos are on Flickr

Sports, Politics and Resistance

Tommie Smith was the winner of the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico. His teammate John Carlos came third.


“The two American athletes received their medals shoeless, but wearing black socks, to represent black poverty…” Both the americans and the silver medalist wore Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badges. “Carlos had forgotten his black gloves, but Norman suggested that they share Smith’s pair, with Smith wearing the right glove and Carlos the left. When “The Star-Spangled Banner” played, Smith and Carlos delivered the salute with heads bowed, a gesture which became front page news around the world. As they left the podium they were booed by the crowd.” Wikipedia

This is a classic image in symbolic resistance which has been an inspiration to all those who struggle.

The coming Chinese Olympics have already been the target of political campaigns. The Chinese civil rights record is a natural target for acts of civil disobedience – whether symbolic or not.

In order to prevent any such things the British Olympic chiefs are going to force athletes to sign a contract promising not to speak out about China’s appalling human rights record – or face being banned from traveling to Beijing. (Daily Mail)

OK, so maybe there cannot be any official positions taken from the participating countries but to prevent individuals from protesting is going to far. The Chinese naturally see the Olympics as a perfect opportunity to present their position and of course this has not gone unopposed – for example AOL video, RSF, and Yahoo.

Resistance Technology Seminar

On Thursday next week (14/2) I will be holding a seminar on technology and resistance. The goal of this seminar is to develop my material which will be included as a book chapter in an upcoming work. Here is an abstract:

The purpose of this chapter is to look at the ways in which technology can be used in civil disobedience. The chapter will analyze the legal weaknesses faced by those wishing to conduct acts of civil disobedience using the Internet as a communications infrastructure. This approach is often referred to as functional equivalence and this chapter will address the following questions. What is functional equivalence? What obstacles are faced by disobedience online? Is the Internet failing as an infrastructure of democratic disobedience?

The background material for the seminar is available here. It is based upon my thesis which is available online from here.

Time: 15.15-17.00 (we usually go get a beer afterwards)
Place: the Annedalsseminariet, Konstepidemins väg 2, room 325

About time too…

Via the Resistance Studies blog:

The Alabama Legislature on Monday approved a bill that would pardon Rosa Parks, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists convicted of violating Jim Crow laws in the state. During the â??second Civil Warâ?? in the 1950s and 1960s against desegregation, thousands of African-Americans and white people were arrested while standing up for freedom.

The protesters were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct, criminal trespass, inciting riots, loitering and more, as they peacefully marched, staged sit-ins and protested to bring an end to the Southâ??s oppressive Jim Crow laws.

For exercising their rights as American citizens, they unjustly ended up with criminal records.

Recently, some Southern states, including Tennessee and Alabama, have moved to offer pardons to those convicted of acts of civil disobedience during the civil rights movement.

The House and Senate this week passed the Rosa Parks Act, named after the mother of the civil rights movement that would grant pardons to individuals who sought them.

The full text of the legislation is here:


About time too…

Back in Sweden

Just returned from the London trip which went very well. I gave two lectures and a seminar at the London School of Economics. The first and second (same lecture on two different days) was on Internet Civil Disobedience. The focus was on the use of Internet technology in acts of civil disobedience with a focus on  denial of service attacks. The seminar was on the Democratic Effects of Attempts to Regulate Internet Technology – this is basically my thesis work and the discussion is on the negative effects that attempts to regulate the Internet have on democratic participation via the Internet. Both lectures and the seminar went very well.

The rest of the time was spent both in meetings and in a well deserved relaxation. As usual London offered the opportunity for lots of interesting new additions to my reading list. Besides the two mentioned earlier (Peter Singerâ??s One World: The ethics of globalization and a book edited by Roth, Worden and Bernstein called Torture: Does it make us safer? Is it ever OK? A Human Rights Perspective). I came across John Pilger Freedom Next Time (a fantastic book I have already read half of it – it is a wake up call for anyone who wants to see the way in which mainstream media stifles important stories relevant to human rights.

Insurrection: Citizen Challenges to Corporate Power (by Kevin Danaher and Jason Mark), From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization (Benjamin Shepard and Ronald Hayduk Eds) and Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (James C. Scott) are three books which are highly relevant to my resistance work.

The list is nicely rounded up by Peer-to-Peer: Harnessing the Power of Disruptive Technologies (Andy Oram editor) and Computer Ethics and Professional Responsibility (edited by Terrell Ward Bynum and Simon Rogerson).

To me this is a very exciting list of books the only problem is to find the time they deserve to be able to read the properly. To me book shopping in London is not really about the large and wonderful bookstores that contain everything. I tend to get lost among so many books, become indecisive and leave empty handed. I much prefer the eclectic mix to be found in good second hand or remainder bookstores.  These also have the additional benefit of being really cheap. The most expensive among this list was Pilger’s book which cost only 8 pounds for a new hardback.


It’s brilliant to be in London again. I made it from Heathrow to the lecture hall with just a few minutes delay. The lecture of the day was Civil Disobedience Online and I think it went down well. Now I shall go and check into the hotel and spend the day in tourism mode. Tomorrow is more lecturing both a repeat on today and then a seminar on my thesis.

It’s almost too much I don’t know what to do first. But the list includes pub, beer, food, shopping, museum (British, National Portrait), British library, bookshops, bookshops and bookshops. Actually the first thing is to check into the hotel and have a shower. Too early in the morning and too little sleep, followed by travel and then two hours lecturing have overpowered my deodorant.

This is academic travel at its best! The only drawback is that I need to leave my free wifi access to go to the hotel.

Mobiles, Trains and Rules

For the second time within seven days I am on my way to Stockholm. Taking the train makes this a simple and comfortable three hour journey with access to coffee and wifi as opposed to a one hour flight filled with trips to airports, queuing and cramped conditions. Basically either way you arrive at your destination almost at the same time – only difference is on the train I can work.

An old addition to the train is the implementation of mobile free compartments. In these compartments the travellers must keep their mobile phones turned off. Since I am not bothered by people speaking loudly about their personal or business affairs I tend not to choose mobile free compartments.

On my last trip I was speaking with a friend of mine on the phone. When I hung up a person in the seat furtherst from me across the aisle rather haughtily pointed out that this was a mobile free compartment. I was very polite but since I was sure it was not I informed him of where the compartment was. He apologised.

Now to the part that is interesting. Not long after this event, his own mobile rings and he answers it and has a conversation!

This makes me very curious as to his desire to inform me (wrongly) of the rules concerning mobile telephones and trains. I have a few alternatives:

A) He is a rule-driven Kantian obsessivly concerned about rules. Yet he is also an active civil disobedient and wants to make a political statement about mobile phone rules.

B) He really thought that the compartment was mobile-free and when he realised he was wrong he overcame his annoyances about people talking loudly in phones and gratefully answered his own phone.

C) He was conducting a social experiment dealing with the enforcement of rules.

D) He is a prat who does not feel that rules apply to him but are only there to stop others from annoying him.

Considering the fact that most other travellers in class I choose wear suits and I do not – I am inclined to choose D.

A Plan

My research has been driven by two things. First I am, and want to be, an academic. This makes me interested in theories, methods and attempting to explore and explain the things I see around me. The second part of my driving force is my passion for what I do. I cannot work unless I feel what I do is important and may eventually bring about positive change. With this I do not mean a passion for academia but a passion for the subject matter.

This latter thing something that many people have pointed out during my thesis defence and the presentations I give. I secretly (not any more?) have difficulty with those who see their research as just another job. I donâ??t mean that they do lesser work â?? they do not. But I donâ??t understand where they find the energy to do things without passion.

Plan of the Parthenon

This leads to the point of my announcement. I know what I want to do with the next part of my career life. I aim to continue working under the umbrella of digital rights and democracy, with a particular focus on the actions and perspectives of users.

As a part of this I have two major projects underway, both in collaboration with smart and exciting people. The first is the development of a base for Free Software research and activity at the IT-University of Göteborg. The second is the development of the Resistance Studies Network at the School of Global Studies. These two are both faculties at the University of Göteborg.

At the FSF I hope to develop my understanding of legal issues and technical limitations. While at the RSN I intend to focus on digital civil disobedience. These are both topics which I had in my thesis â?? so itâ??s more in depth work rather than breaking new ground personally.

Right now both these projects are in the planning phases and will result in lots of work. So I will keep you all informed as it progresses.

It nice to have a plan, so now you knowâ?¦

Oh, and I have a few odd morbid side-projects, not to mention this blog, which I fully intend to persue but they cannot become mainstream to my work…yet.