Civil Disobedience Beyond the State II – Berlin 2015

“Civil Disobedience Beyond the State II – The Digitalization of Disobedience from Whistleblowing to Anonymous” brought together academics, artists, activists all interested in engaging with the evolving concept of digital disobedience, or digital civil disobedience. The workshop, which took place on May 8th and 9th in Berlin, was the second installment in a series of workshops on civil disobedience. Following the first workshop held in Amsterdam (October 29-31, 2014) on the transformation of civil disobedience more generally, this workshop centered on the challenges that digital civil disobediences raises for the traditional conceptualizations of politically motivated unlawful acts.

The workshop was held in the ACUD Kunsthaus, which provided an informal environment that enhanced open and dynamic discussion among both speakers and participants. The workshop was funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society, the Amsterdam Center for Globalisation Studies, the NWO project Transformations of Civil Disobedience, and the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford. The diverse range of key speakers included: Gabriella Coleman, Joss Hands, Manohar Kumar, Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, Bill Scheuerman and Jillian C. York.

From the beginning of the discussions, it was clear that using the concept “civil disobedience” to describe a heterogeneous and sometimes contradictory group of politically motivated online direct actions is far from being straightforward. Some of the critical methodological questions brought up were: how can the agents’ political self-understanding be taken into account without leaving it completely up to them to define the meaning of their practices. Can those who engage in unlawful politically motivated online direct action theorize on their own culture and the logic behind their actions, or should that be the task of an external observer? To what extent does theory need to be consistent with the agents’ judgments of their own actions? One can take Snowden’s case as an example and ask: Does Snowden have a better interpretative perspective about the political significance and consequences of his own actions than the one we have as external observers? These important methodological questions continued to reemerge during the workshop because they are pointing to one of the fundamental problems of civil disobedience: who determines whether a specific case is civil disobedience or not and what role do the conscious motivations and intentions of agents play in answering this question? Since some of those who engage in hacktivism and some whistleblowers have judged their actions as part of the tradition of civil disobedience, theorist shouldn’t overlook these questions.

In addition to these critical methodological questions, more substantial issues were brought up. Reflecting on the actions and inner workings of Anonymous as presented Gabriella Coleman, questions about the disruptive power of humor as well as questions about the legitimacy of humorous disruptions were raised. The study of different kinds of disruption techniques led to a reconsideration of two requirements for civil disobedience according to the liberal tradition: the non-violence requirement and the symbolic nature of the actions. From the points that were raised, it is clear that more theoretical work is required to establish what kind of harm online direct action can produce and to what extent those kinds of harm count as violence. Furthermore, the symbolic nature of civil disobedience also becomes contested since there may be symbolic online forms of violence. If there is such a thing as symbolic violence, it is very likely that it can happen on the web.

The concerns about digital violence can be linked to other concerns raised in the workshop, such as the legal framework in which digital civil disobedience would be taking place. With the Internet under the jurisdiction of multiple legal systems that often seem to overlap, what does it mean to act within the limits of the fidelity to the law when engaged in online activism? Do the terms and conditions agreements play a legitimate binding legal role when users interact with each other or with information online?

The difficult task of finding (or creating) the political significance of current online cyber activism can only be advance through the collaboration of many: software developers, activists, lawyers, people from the media, and theorists who can continue building up spaces of encounter and interaction. This workshop not only allowed for the emergence of a plethora of questions for further debates, but also because it allowed the participants to realize that given the complexity of these phenomena, its study requires a division of labor as well as an interdisciplinary approach.

Recommended reading

“Three Ways to Understanding Civil Disobedience in a Digitized World” by Theresa Züger. This article is based on her introduction to the workshop.