One consequence of WikiLeaks leak is that it has been cut off from its main sources of acquiring money. Mastercard, Visa, and PayPal have all stopped doing business with WikilLeaks. WikiLeak’s bank, PostFinance, has also stopped doing business with the organization.
In response a group of “hackers” known as “Anonymous” have launched Operation Payback. This operation involves launching Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks on the web sites of the companies in question.
Put a bit roughly, DDoS attacks work by overwhelming a site with traffic so that the site is greatly slowed or even forced to shut down. To use a somewhat inaccurate analogy, it is like crowding the entrance to a business so that customers cannot get in. While relatively simple, these attacks are hard to counter because each attempt at access seems like a legitimate site visit.
One factor that makes this DD0S attack stand out is that it is supposed to be a political protest. According to Anonymous, they are “actively campaigning for the free flow of information” and to be “against anyone who supports censorship, such as those who are responsible for the silencing of WikiLeaks.” For its part, a WikiLeaks spokesperson say that “We neither condemn nor applaud these attacks. We believe they’re a reflection of public opinion on the actions of the targets.”
For the sake of the discussion, I will assume that the campaign is actually an act of protest and not merely an act of mischief using WikiLeaks as an excuse. I will now turn to the ethics of the matter.
When considering any protest, regardless of the means employed, a primary question is whether the protest is morally justified or not. If a protest is not morally justified and it does some harm to those who are targeted by the protest, then the protest would seem to be morally wrong. For example, suppose some students failed their classes because they partied all semester rather than doing work in their classes. In response, suppose they decided to “protest” by breaking the handles to the professors’ offices door and those of the classrooms in which they taught on the first day of classes the next semester.
While the students might be angry over their grades, the professor did not wrong them. As such, they have no grounds for protest and their “protest” merely causes unjustified harm to the professor, the university and also to other students.
Now, suppose that a professor maliciously failed students in a philosophy class because he disagree with their criticism of his philosophical views. In that case, the students would seem to have legitimate grounds for a protest against the professor.
Turning back to the actual situation, that of the alleged abandonment of WikiLeaks, the question is whether the companies in question have acted wrongly and thus morally deserve to be subject to acts of protest.
As noted above, Anonymous seems to be claiming that the protest is justified because these companies support censorship and are taken to have a role in silencing WikiLeaks. It is, perhaps, somewhat ironic that those campaigning for the free flow of information remain anonymous (they obviously see the value in not allowing some information to flow freely) and that they protest by cutting people off from information. However, the key concern here is whether these companies have acted wrongly in a way that justifies this protest.
On the face of it, refusing to do business with WikiLeaks does not seem to be an act of censorship. After all, they are not actually censoring WikiLeaks-they are merely refusing to do business with them. It might be argued that cutting off these sources of funding silences WikiLeaks. In reply, while funding does help, web hosting is actually fairly cheap (or even free). WikiLeaks could, for example, start a free WordPress blog or pay around $10 a month for a site. As such, the lack of PayPal and such would be inconvenient but not silencing.
It could be argued that while the financial companies are not literally silencing WikiLeaks, they are acting unfairly by refusing to do business with them. Whether this is true or not depends partially on whether WikiLeaks has actually broken the rules set by these companies in their terms of service. Of course, the terms of service for some of these companies would seem to be fairly “open”: MasterCard and Visa both do business with the KKK. However, if WikiLeaks violated the terms, then the companies would seem to have a legitimate right to terminate their relationship. If, however, the companies are merely cutting off WikiLeaks because of political pressure, then that would be another matter.
Thus, whether there is an injustice to protest here or not seems to be, amazingly enough, a matter of controversy.
A second major factor is the means of protest. As a general principle, the means of the protest should be morally proportional to the offense. After all, if a protest is worse than what it is protesting against, then the ethics of the situations would shift.
In the case of Operation Payback, the protest is to use DDoS attacks to choke web sites, thus denying people access to that information. These attacks do not actually expose financial data. To use an analogy, this “hacking” is not like someone breaking into your bank. Rather, it is somewhat like someone blocking your access to the teller.
One thing that morally distinguishes Operation Payback from other DDoS attacks is that these attacks have typically involved recruiting peoples’ PCs involuntarily via malware (thus creating what is known as a zombie army). The current DDoS attack is supposed to be voluntary-people are apparently downloading and installing software to launch the attacks. This is morally important since hijacking peoples’ PCs and their bandwidth to protest would hardly be an ethical thing to do. It would be rather like tricking people into protesting or stealing from them to make protest signs. Since the protest is voluntary, this aspect seems to be morally acceptable. As such, the main point of moral concern is whether the attacks themselves are morally acceptable.
On the face of it, the DDoS protest does seem morally comparable to “real world” protests that involve blocking entrances to businesses and other organizations (like the sit ins at schools). While these protests do inconvenience and annoy people trying to gain access, they do not seem to do significant harm. In fact, Anonymous announced that it would not attempt to attack Amazon because doing so would be harmful to consumers and inconsistent with their desire to protest rather than inflict ham. As such, this sort of DDoS protest does seem to have the potential to be morally acceptable.
Of course, arguments against sit-in/blocking style protests would apply to the DDoS protests. As I see it, the assessment would involve weighing the weight of the misdeed(s) that sparked the protest against the harms being done to those protested against and those impacted by the protest. Do, if the DDoS attacks are proportional to the alleged misdeeds of the companies, then the protests would be acceptable. If not, then they would be unacceptable.
Since the ethics of WikiLeaks is still a matter of debate, I do not have a definite answer at this point.