Special to The Public Record

The Prosecution Of Free Speech And Activism

PayPal14Alright, so I’m gearing up to ask you to donate to the PayPal14.

And before you quote some smart-arse quote back at me along the lines of “do the crime, do the time” or “get a job, slack-arses!” — let me explain why I think it is so goddamn important you give up your squiggly-few dollar coins for a cause that frankly I don’t think most people care more about than a turd on a stick.

Are you ready?

I want you to tell the corporate pundits of the U.S. oligarchy who pursue prosecution of activists who’ve never harmed a flea to go fuck themselves

Let me expand upon that topic:


The PayPal 14 case is the litmus test of the right to digital protest in the 21st century.

In 2010, a group of activists known as the “PayPal14” engaged in a 4-day-long peaceful online protest involving a distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) of the payment website PayPal in response to the corporations’ refusal to process donations via the Wau Holland Foundation to Wikileaks.

While “Paypal gave the US Department of Justice a list of 1,000 IP addresses of computers which took part in the [DDoS] attack” only 14 people were ever charged. 13 of the group pleaded guilty, while charges against a 14th person are being dealt with separately.

In court PayPal’s lawyers claimed caused damages as great as $5.5 million, yet Anuj Nayar, a spokesperson for PayPal has also claimed the “impact of the DDoS on PayPal’s site “slowed down the company’s system, but to such a small extent that it would have been imperceptible to customers.””

Jennifer Hakes, a senior PayPal manager in corporate communications, also confirmed to the New York Times: “PayPal was never down.”

And yet, the group has been court ordered to pay PayPal $80’000 in compensation. The court is holding eleven of the group to felony allocutions in abeyance. Essentially, if they fail to reoffend and pay what is essentially $5,600 each in restitution to PayPal, the prosecution will not oppose an application to withdraw felony counts and will instead recommend one to three years probation for a misdemeanour. Failure to pay restitution will likely result in felony charges being handed down.

It seems like an awfully big punishment for a group of activists who never even brought down a website.

Perhaps I’m soft-hearted when it comes to the prosecution of free speech activists — but with good cause.

In 2010 I threw every part of myself to a cause (and I am astonished to admit I committed myself whole-heartedly without once ever having watched the movie V for Vendetta.)

And I gave myself over to a cause, in a way that makes me cringe today. We barely knew what we were fighting for at first, let alone the magnitude of what we were up against.

Perhaps, I’d have simply shut my laptop and gone to the park if I’d known back then what was to come. But I didn’t, and so instead, flung caution to the wind and baited trouble with over a quarter of a million tweets over the next few years.

Like so many of my fellow activists, I was naive. And perhaps that’s why we got so far.

The last few years of protest was as close to our generation came to a open-throated banshee scream of horror against choking neo-feudalism of five-eyed corpocracy. As if I wasn’t going to throw myself head-long into it?

But in the beginning, way back in 2010, when we were banding together to defend Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks, legal advice was the last thing on my mind. Like so many activists, I was unaware of how. many. ways. I could end up in the shit.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. Back in January 2010U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton gave a relatively rousing speech on internet freedom, claiming “both the American people and nations that censor the internet should understand that our government is committed to helping promote internet freedom.”

When Clinton condemned pirating online material and terrorists in the same breath not much further into her speech, it should have been a wake up call. (Coincidentally, her speech was later deleted from the U.S. Department of State’s website and now exists only in Google’s archived cache.)

And so, when 2010, when “we the peoples of the Internets” rose up — the activists who adored nyancat and rick-rolling and thought we could change the world with a hashtag — it was nothing less than a surrealist tragicomedy. Mostly tragedy.

Frankly, many of us didn’t give a fuck about the viciousness of the law as an instrument of corporate governmental force, until it all came crashing down upon our heads.

What we achieved felt unholy in it’s beauty: a cauldron boiling over, unstoppable in force — until the pervading sense of cointel and agent provocateurs around us became all too obvious, and the pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets ripped us apart again during Occupy.

But it was years to come until we would really understand the danger we were in, and so when former lyricist for the Grateful Dead and founding member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, J.P. Barlow tweeted:

“The first serious infowar is now engaged. The field of battle is WikiLeaks. You are the troops”

… and we flooded to follow the call to battle.

For those of us who had been waiting our whole grey lives for the fight, that our critics later shamed us with for being convoluted and unfocused — but in reality was for everything, every fucking thing that was wrong with the world we’d grown into…

…surveillance cameras, pollution, concrete jungles, lack of space, huge university fees, no jobs, global warming, detention centres locking up refugees, police violence, corporate prison culture, debt collectors, discrimination, data mining, profiling, constant resource wars, drone bombings…

…for individual free speech and for the right to personal privacy and for just a little bit more than cradle to grave — for data sovereignty — for all of us who became instant information activists that year of 2010 — there was nothing else.

In the cracks of the crush between the fierce arguments of civil society groups and academics over ideology we took to action, ignoring the constant media narrative mocking activism — and the sad, over-blown slap-stick comedy schtick debating the rights of individuals outside the traditional media guild to the title of “journalist.”

Ideology is static. But the call to defend Wikileaks’ right to publish was the signal above the noise. And some of us, well we would have given up our lives for it. Perhaps it sounds all a bit ridiculously fucking dramatic, but some of us did. Some of us more than others.

Of course, there are the names you will probably recognise:

Chelsea ManningJulian AssangeBarrett BrownJeremy Hammond, all of whom will spend many years to come in various forms of prisons.

Sarah HarrisonEdward Snowden, and so many other hackers, journalists and activists, forced into exiled, the ever-expanding enclave of émigrés seeking sanctuary in Berlin.

Those such as Aaron Swartz for whom the struggle overcame their ability to continue, those we lost to suicide.

And yet there are others who simply disappeared. It is an odd experience to say the least, to grieve for someone who you only ever knew online.

To find myself one day standing in a fruit shop and bursting into tears for someone I’d never met, who was yet… missing from the internet, felt odd to say the least. But the disappearances have been the hardest thing for me to accept over the past few years: the loss of people I barely knew and yet (I feel ashamed to say it) loved.

All the small accounts on social media that simply flickered out. The unknowns. The anons who vanished. And once upon a time, there were so many anons.

I wonder about the ones they sent to jail. There’s hundreds of Anons around the world in jail today. We just don’t know all their names.

And more than a few fled before the fateful knock on the door, taking up a half-life of hiding from the authorities. For others, the fuel in the tank of unabated demands for courage dwindled in the face of constant threats: jail, black-bagging, black-balling, no-fly lists, refusal for security clearance…

Some continue to struggle within increasingly fragmented cities, simply trying to make ends meet post-Occupy. And there are some who aren’t coping: families and individuals, who crumbled under the financial, psychological and physical strain of activism.

The worst scenario, for me at least is the nagging 3am taunt, the never-answered question of which anons who vanished were “red-teaming in the pen”: covert government informants and agents, or malicious pre-programmed bots hanging out with activists and gathering intel in the leafy gardens of social media such as Twitter and Facebook, collecting information on us and sowing discord. The thought that at least some of the accounts of activists I’ve invested my feelings in and cared about may have been owned by intelligence agencies never ceases to leave me retching.

But back to happier times, in 2010…

18 months before the Occupy Movement and the Cryptoparties, the term “Opsec” wasn’t yet a concept on my radar or terminology in my lexicon.

The activists of the 2010 information war stormed social media like a herd of elephants with diarrhea in an marketplace. The protests were ungainly, attention seeking, inappropriate, and often wildly effective at electing distress from governments. So there was still the lulz, the terrible jokes we shared, most often at the expense of the authorities.

And many felt a sense of what can only be described as extra-sentience. As internet natives we had always been connected yet so often alienated for much of our lives. Most of us had grown up barely knowing our next door neighbours, and yet the information war of 2010 brought many of us closer to activists across the world than we’d ever been to our co-workers or classmates.

For a brief moment we were more than the sum total of ourselves: more than the over-worked grad student, the single parent, the engineer, hacker, waitress, journalist, mathematician, artist or musician. We felt like we we belonged to something, promising a future better than the fucked up world we’d grown up in — if only we kept our shit together.

And looking back now, how I wish some hackers had taught activists such as myself how to use crypto apps like Tor, PGP and OTR, back in 2010, beforethe PayPal14, before Occupy and before we had the benefit of hindsight.

Or perhaps sat a bunch of us down and explained the legal risks before we decided to spontaneously throw ourselves head first into a hydra-headed online guerrilla movement taking on the world’s super-powers, who wouldn’t hesitate to label us all as terrorists for participating in a global samizdat movement colloquially known as “defending our internets.”

But frankly, nobody thought back then that the sorts of raggedy andy activists who brought you the obvious mass success of PEW! PEW! PEW! DDoS! who never even brought down of Paypal’s website, not even for a second, had Occupy in them.

And so we were stunned at size of the multitude who’d suddenly appeared on the streets to join the Occupy movement, with only our moral compasses and our big mouths on social media to guide us.

And we didn’t really understand the degree to which we were being surveilled, logged, profiled and cointel’d. It was four years until we’d know the magnitude of NSA spying.

It is embarrassing to realise how little I understood when we began. Looking back on the last few years, I wish we had all sat down and written a contingency plan in case of the possibility anyone ever took us seriously with our pint-sized plans for revolution.

And so I can’t help but think it is only dumb luck that some like the PayPal14 were prosecuted and not so many others of us instead. We were just a bunch of over-sized kids, barbarians and savages if you will, trying to fight back in a way that was so utterly, bewilderingly juvenile and stone-aged it was fucking sacred. Each and every beautiful meme, bathroom graffiti, blog post, DDoS… every little tweet was part of our war for a voice in this world as citizens, not subjects or suspects.

It hurts to think how little I understood only a couple of years ago, about the art of war. Because what I thought in 2010 was just a small protest, turned out to be really just be part of humanity’s long war, a war that sadly we are all going to lose.

In the face of irreversible environmental disaster it is not question of “if” we shall lose, but simply how how catastrophically. And so, as we must continue our fight for the future, our tactics will also have to evolve. We have to become more effective, to have discernible impact.

As the huge West Antarctic ice sheet shelves off, OpPayPal’s protest looks minutely symbolic: less effective than a protest blocking the doorway of a department store. And perhaps in light of the tipping point, a number of people may reach the conclusion the time for symbolism is over.

But few entities have realised the power of symbolism as well as the American corpocracy. Time and time again they’ve acknowledged an understanding of symbolism’s sway over humankind. And it’s for that reason symbolic protest still gets a shiv in the guts when it comes to prosecution in the U.S.A.

The lulz, the memes and the multitude of hashags — all the small symbols that are so difficult to define and quantify that join us together in action are so very hard for faceless corporations to fight. And it is for precisely that reason that some symbols are priceless.

Networks that feed on human servitude and consumption know the power of symbols. Why else would mining companies and soft drink brands that rot children’s teeth pay creative types so much lucre to cast spell across the masses through the sigils instilled in crass advertising?

Whether they like it or not, the PayPal14 have been served up as a symbol to the masses. But the meaning in the symbol they will represent is ultimately up to us.

The PayPal14’s prosecution signals a dark warning, a symbol of a threat to future generations of free speech activists. And we need free speech now more than ever before. And we also need symbols of redemption, of our ability to cooperate despite the mechanics of coercion that would very much like us to sit down and shut up.

Over the last few years some of us have engaged in information warfare: people against corporations. These corporations exist on the scent of the almighty dollar. So today, when you chose how to spend your money, I’m asking you to use just a few of your dollars to send corporations around the world the message that persecuting individuals at random to punish the will of the people just won’t fly.

Because frankly, fucking up the lives of 14 activists with huge debts in hope the rest of us will learn our frigging lesson and shut the hell up is pretty damn obscene.

Help pay off the debt imposed upon the PayPal14.

Create a symbol of hope, whisper the prayer that we the people of the Internets still have a faint glimmer to cling to late at night when the missing are still gone for good.

To say no one gets left behind wouldn’t behind wouldn’t be truthful. But some of us can be saved.

Like graffiti etched onto bathroom walls, symbolism is awfully hard to rub out. We the dreamers must be guardians of symbols of subversive hope. The multitude, the mob and the creators of memes — are still yet more powerful than we know.

Click here to donate to the PayPal14 today.

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1 Response for “The Prosecution Of Free Speech And Activism”

  1. realistic says:

    “Because frankly, fucking up the lives of 14 activists with huge debts in hope the rest of us will learn our frigging lesson and shut the hell up is pretty damn obscene.”

    — they got a $5k restitution fee each…. 5k of debt is hardly “huge” nor would it fuck up anyone’s life… especially when they are young kids. That’s like two months of higher education debt, on average.

    What a load of dramatic nonsense

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