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Quote of the Day: Doctorow's Call for Us to Get Real About 'Net Action

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, January 25 2011

We need to have a serious debate about tactics such as the Distributed Denial of Service -- flooding computers with bogus requests so that they can't be reached -- which some have compared to sit-in demonstrations. As someone who's been arrested at sit-ins, I think this is just wrong. A sit-in derives its efficacy not from merely blocking the door to some objectionable place, but from the public willingness to stand before your neighbours and risk arrest and bodily harm in service of a moral cause, which is itself a force for moral suasion. As a tactic, DDoS has more in common with filling a business's locks with super glue, or cutting its phone lines -- risky, to be sure, but closer to vandalism and thus less apt to convince your neighbours to look sympathetically on your cause.

-- Cory Doctorow, a long-time Internet activist and himself an author, takes on Evgeny Morozov's new book "The Net Delusion" in a long, chewy review for the Guardian and comes away quite critical of the book's main arguments and evidence. Doctorow gives Morozov the notion that repressive regimes are smart enough and wily enough to exploit the online space for their own agendas, but finds that justifiable knocks against cyber-uptopianism obscure what's really going on on the ground and across the wires -- a discussion that takes on added relevance this morning as we see protests heat up in Egypt and the debate about the Internet's role heat up along with it.

What we really need, writes Doctorow is some critical analysis of all of the tactics, structures, limitations, and possibilities that our digital evolution has made our modern realities. The passage plucked and pasted above hits on distributed denial of service attacks, or DDoS, the act of overwhelming web servers with a barrage of traffic, something we saw the global collective Anonymous engage in around Wikileaks and the people of Tunisia's on-going resistance against their government. Is DDoS civil disobedience? Something else? Are we thinking about it all wrong? Those questions, suggests Doctorow, need to be asked -- and Morozov's indulging in anti-cyber-uptopian arguments don't advance that conversation much.

That said, Doctorow doesn't pay too much attention to a point that comes up frequently in Morozov's critiques. It isn't just cherry-picked online cyber-utopians ranting about how great the 'Net is: it's been the U.S. State Department that has advanced some of the broadest-brush ideas about the Internet as a force for good (and gotten heaps of supportive press for it) without, arguably, an equally robust discussion about the nuances of foreign policy and engagement and how they're changed -- or not -- just because things have gone digital.

Read the whole review here. For Morozov's part, he concludes on Twitter, " I'm still waiting for a real critical review, not just cyber-utopian ping-pong." But he concedes, "Cory's was a good try, I must admit."