What is the right to assemble online?


Sorry for the long delay in posts. I’ve been a little busy and I’ve had some trouble coming up with topics as well. So, if there are any topics you’d like to see written about feel free to shoot me a message.

In the US we have an amendment to our constitution which ensures our right to assemble. This amendment is important because it allows us to protest governmental action and activities we do not like. We do not always like the way that this right is being expressed, such as the Westboro Baptist Church protesting fallen soldiers, gay suicides and a range of other things. It also protests our right to counter protest the WBC.

In the case of a protest over a company, it’s possible to protest in front of their headquarters or in front of individual branches such as Bank of America. In many ways these tactics are effective because it drives media attention do to it’s location. If someone is protesting a bank in small town America, such as my home town, Grove City, PA no one is going to care. You might get a piece written about it in the Allied but it’s unlikely to attract the attention of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette which is only 60 miles south. Even if some how it did make the news in Pittsburgh, it’s unlikely to remain in the news, which that’s something a protest in Pittsburgh would actually be able to do.

Why does this matter? Well, for a company like Amazon.com much of it’s physical locations are in small town America. They don’t have large presences in many major cities. How do you effectively protest a large internet based company? How do you protest a company when the people that want to do the protesting are scattered throughout the world?

In the past I’ve written about LulzSec and Anonymous, these groups still operate and have had some interesting ideas about how to protest. The first is what is called a Denial of Service (DoS) attack, where a company’s website is overwhelmed with requests for access to the site and it kills the server. This would be the physical equivalent of creating a lined of linked arms across the doorway to the company’s headquarters or branch. Typically, these sort of attacks don’t last very long because IT departments have become very good at finding the sources of these attacks and stopping them.

It is not possible to respond by moving across the street to continue protesting where people to see you. It is also not possible to post ads in the area as a form of protest. However, it is possible to buy ads on Google or other such sites that will display something if you type Bank of America, however, I’m not sure if this is effective or not.

Another type of protest employed is the internet petition. I’ve signed plenty of them, but it’s fairly obvious that these are as worth as much as the paper their printed on (which is to say none). These really just make you feel better, without much work.

At this point, I think that when it has come to massive protests online, Reddit has created the blueprint. Redditors have worked extremely hard to protest SOPA. This has included call your senator day, getting websites to agree to an internet blackout day, where sites will completely black out all content. This is a representation of the impact of censorship that SOPA will enact.

However, this type of protest isn’t really possible for all types of government or private business action. While the denial of service attacks aren’t very effective, they do raise awareness and have lead to other types of attacks, such as hacking and the release of data that users thought was secure. Despite the fact that it is theft of data, these actions have done more to change company behavior than any other type of internet based protests.

Is that the future of assembly online? I don’t know. It’s easy to block websites that act as a rallying point, so it will be important for people to actually meet to do their protesting as protesting on the internet doesn’t really have the same impact, unless something big gets leaked. We do need to define what is acceptable as a society for online protesting. DoS might be a way to allow protests.

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