Moral Suasion

Moral Suasion

Cory Doctorow Make Free Volume 25
Cory Doctorow Make Free

The life of a modern-day maker is greatly eased by the abundance of free or cheap services for hosting communities, files, communications, and computation. But for all the promise of cloud computing, there’s plenty of peril, too, especially for anyone doing anything disruptive. Will your “cloud” evaporate the second your project starts attracting legal threats? Does a service provider with a million customers care about your customs enough to keep you online even if it means risking a police raid, subpoena, or denial-of-service attack?

The ongoing WikiLeaks fight is a wake-up call for anyone who’s been blithely relying on the cloud. It only took a few days for WikiLeaks to become a digital refugee, slogging from one service provider to the next, trying to find someone with enough backbone to keep it online in the face of legal threats, political intervention, and mysterious traffic-floods from persons or governments unknown. But WikiLeaks wasn’t without its defenders. “Hacktivists” operating under the Anonymous banner organized mass denial-of-service attacks on Amazon, PayPal, Visa, MasterCard, and other firms that kicked WikiLeaks out or refused to process their payments.

Distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks are a strange beast, unique to the online world. Some DDoSes are the work of millions of users acting in concert to flood a server with so much traffic that it falls over. More commonly, DDoS attacks are the work of vandals or crooks who use clouds of hacked PCs to attack their targets. Some hacktivists argue that their DDoS attacks are comparable to the civil-rights-era sit-ins — after all, a wall of activists blockading the doors to a “whites-only” lunch counter is a kind of denial-of-service attack.

I think they’re wrong. I grew up in the antiwar movement and participated in my first sit-in when I was 12. Sit-ins are a sort of denial of service, but that’s not why they work. What they do is convey the message: “I am willing to put myself in harm’s way for my beliefs. I am willing to risk arrest and jail. This matters.” This may not be convincing for people who strongly disagree with you, but it makes an impression on people who haven’t been paying attention. Discovering that your neighbors are willing to be harmed, arrested, imprisoned, or even killed for their beliefs is a striking thing.

And that’s a crucial difference between a DDoS and a sit-in: participants in a sit-in expect to get arrested. Participants in a DDoS do everything they can to avoid getting caught. If you want to draw a metaphor, DDoSers are like the animal rights activists who fill a lab’s locks with super glue. This is effective at shutting down your opponent for a good while, but it’s a lot less likely to draw sympathy from the public, who can dismiss it as vandalism.

One thing is clear: those of us who don’t supply our own digital infrastructure depend on intermediaries who are increasingly willing to roll over at the slightest pressure. It’s time to start devoting some of our creative attention to ways of clearing away the choke-points and leaning back on those companies that are getting leaned upon by powerful, established forces.

Cory Doctorow’s latest novel is Makers (Tor Books U.S., HarperVoyager U.K.). He lives in London and co-edits the website Boing Boing.

This column first appeared in MAKE Volume 26 (April 2011), page 31.


From the Pages of MAKE:
MAKE Volume 26: Karts & Wheels
Garage go-kart building is a time-honored tradition for DIYers, In this issue of MAKE, we’ll show you how to build wheeled wonders that’ll have you and the kids racing around the neighborhood in epic DIY style. Build a longboard skateboard by bending plywood and build a crazy go-kart driven by a pair of battery-powered drills. Put a mini gasoline engine on a bicycle. And construct an amazing wind-powered cart that can outrun a tailwind. Plus you’ll learn how to build the winning vehicle from our online Karts and Wheels contest! In addition to karts, you’ll find plenty of other projects that only MAKE can offer!


14 thoughts on “Moral Suasion

  1. Anne Speck says:

    His latest novel is “For the Win” — May 2010 — on the topic of organizing and civil disobedience. Though it was published in the young adult category so it may not count. 

  2. Matthew Krawczun says:

    I can’t agree with him more “clouds” are the worst idea ever in my view. sure they have there uses but but their greatly out number but it’s flaws.  

  3. John Abbot says:

    The other crucial difference between a DDoS and a sit-in is the penalties involved. A DDoS is punished as a federal felony in the US with many months in prison. Sit-in’s are usually treated as a local misdemeanor and charges are more likely to be dropped than to result in jail time. This may explain the desire for anonymity on the part of DDoSers.

  4. Engineer Zero says:

    If the cloud can inflict DDoS attacks, it’s surprising that no one has thought of a way for the cloud to absorb DDoS attacks.  For example, service requests could be routed through a cloud service which would monitor the request rate.  If the rate gets too high, the cloud service would immediately spawn temporary page mirror sites and divert the requests accordingly  Seeing that it only takes one computer with a mirror site to defeat a thousand computers in a DDoS attack, the threat would be neutralized.    

    I would think that ‘DDoS Insurance’ would be a popular seller in some quarters.  

  5. Necessary Reply says:

    Thanks for the boring pointless article about nothing. I’m not really sure how people manage to get paid for writing articles like this.

  6. Bruce M. Lloyd says:

    Cory Doctorow is useless and why anyone takes what he says with ANY credit is a fool. The world needs less Cory Doctorow. A LOT less.

  7. Benjamin Wilson says:

    While I think that certain DDoS attacks or “virtual sit-ins” can have real-world impact, I agree that physical, offline sit-ins have greater potential.

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at or via @snowgoli.

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