Hacktivist collective Anonymous petitions the White House to make DDoS attacks part of First Amendment protections. Shutdown attacks are akin to Occupy protests, group argues.

Mathew J. Schwartz, Contributor

January 11, 2013

4 Min Read

Can the Anonymous hacktivist collective hack the First Amendment?

A petition filed this week with the White House seeks to decriminalize distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, making them a legal form of protesting. In other words, it would extend the First Amendment's protections to protect people's right to disrupt websites.

"Distributed denial-of-service (DDoS), is not any form of hacking in any way," claims the "We The People" petition request. "It is the equivalent of repeatedly hitting the refresh button on a webpage. It is, in that way, no different than any 'occupy' protest."

According to the petition, "instead of a group of people standing outside a building to occupy the area, they are having their computer occupy a website to slow (or deny) service of that particular website for a short time." The petition also calls for anyone jailed for a DDoS-related crime to be immediately released, and the related charges to be expunged from people's arrest records.

[ For the latest on the ongoing John McAfee saga, see McAfee Strikes Back: Spyware Sting Targets Belize Government. ]

While the identity of the person who created the petition is partially anonymized -- it's ascribed to "Dylan K" of Eagle, Wis. -- members of the Anonymous collective are clearly backing the petition. "We Need Your Signature! Make, distributed denial-of-service (DDoS), a legal form of protesting," read a Friday YourAnonNews Twitter post.

For the White House to respond to the petition, the request needs to garner 25,000 signatures by Feb. 6. By Friday morning, however, the petition had received only about 2,000 signatures.

The First Amendment enshrines both the right to freedom of speech and "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." The DDoS petition, then, implies that current laws should be updated to protect people's right to disrupt websites. "With the advance in internet techonology (sic), comes new grounds for protesting," reads the petition.

The request highlights the fact that that there are currently different rules governing website shutdowns vs. interrupting businesses in the real world. For example, in many Western countries, protestors can choke the entrance to a business -- or even city streets -- for a few hours, and it's legal. "And the digital equivalent of that, a DDoS attack that takes a website offline for a few hours, is illegal," said Mandiant VP Grady Summers at last year's RSA conference in San Francisco. The prosecutions of numerous people involved in DDoS attacks -- or in some readings, protests -- further makes that clear.

If the petition gathers sufficient signatures, and the White House responds, would DDoS fans have any chance of seeing website disruptions get classified as a form of protest? Most likely Congress would need to pass a law that protects DDoS attacks as a form of free speech. Given that federal legislators can't even agree on a bill to protect people's privacy rights online, good luck scheduling a DDoS discussion.

In the meantime, law enforcement officials will no doubt continue to prosecute DDoS attacks. But FBI officials have said they're not unaware of concerns over people's right to protest online, and emphasized they're required by law to protect people's civil liberties, including online.

"That is a huge concern for us ... and there are a number of challenges associated with this," said Eric Strom, unit chief for the Cyber Initiative and Resource Fusion Unit Cyber Division at the FBI, at last year's RSA conference. One of the chief challenges, he said, is that many people who launch DDoS attacks are minors.

How does the bureau gauge when online speech or protests cross a legal line? "If they're just complaining about something, or an issue, they have every right to do that and certainly we don't have a problem with that," he said. "It's when they take that step across the line, to make a point ... [and] they hack into a system, or go after say someone in law enforcement and their families … obviously we're going to take a big interest."

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About the Author(s)

Mathew J. Schwartz


Mathew Schwartz served as the InformationWeek information security reporter from 2010 until mid-2014.

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