To some people, a political mission matters more than anything, including your rights. Such people (the Bolsheviks come to mind) have caused a great deal of damage and suffering throughout history, especially in the last 100 years or so. Now they're taking their mission online. You better not get in their way.
Molly Sauter, a doctoral student at McGill University and a research affiliate at the Berkman Center at Harvard ("exploring cyberspace, sharing its study & pioneering its development"), has a paper calling the use of DDOS (distributed denial of service) attacks a legitimate form of activism and protest. This can't go unchallenged.
Sauter notes the severe penalties for DDOS attacks under "...Title 18, Section 1030 (a)(5) of the US Code, otherwise known as the CFAA" (Computer Fraud and Abuse Act). This section is short enough that I may as well quote it here verbatim:
(5)(A) [Whoever] knowingly causes the transmission of a program, information, code, or command, and as a result of such conduct, intentionally causes damage without authorization, to a protected computer;
(B) intentionally accesses a protected computer without authorization, and as a result of such conduct, recklessly causes damage; or
(C) intentionally accesses a protected computer without authorization, and as a result of such conduct, causes damage and loss.
There are other problems with the CFAA with respect to some legitimate security research and whether it technically falls afoul of the act, but that's not the issue here.
Sauter goes on in some detail with the penalties under Federal law for violating this act and, no argument here, they are extreme and excessive. You can easily end up with many years in prison. This is, in fact, a problem generally true of Federal law, the number of crimes under which has grown insanely in the last 30 or so years, with the penalties growing proportionately. For an informed and intelligent rant on the problem I recommend Three Felonies a Day by Harvey Silverglate. Back to hacktivist DDOS attacks.
She cites cases of DDOS attacks committed against Koch Industries, Paypal, the Church of Scientology and Lufthansa Airlines, some of these by the hacktivists who call themselves Anonymous. In the US cases of the attacks against Koch, Paypal and the Church, the attackers received prison time and large fines and restitution payments. In the Lufthansa case, in a German court, the attacker was sentenced to pay a fine or serve 90 days in jail; that sentence was overturned on appeal. The court ruled that "...the online demonstration did not constitute a show of force but was intended to influence public opinion."
This is the sort of progressive opinion, dismissive of property rights, that Sauter regrets is not happening here in the US. She notes, and this makes sense to me, that the draconian penalties in the CFAA induce guilty pleas from defendants, preventing the opportunity for a Lufthansa-like precedent.
This is part and parcel of the same outrageous growth of Federal criminal law I mentioned earlier; you'll find the same incentive to plead guilty, even if you're just flat-out innocent, all over the US Code. I would join Sauter in calling for some sanity in the sentencing in the CFAA, but I part ways with her argument that political motives are a mitigating, even excusing factor.
Sauter's logic rises from a foundation of anti-capitalism:
...it would appear that the online space is being or has already been abdicated to a capitalist-commercial governance structure, which happily merges the interests of corporate capitalism with those of the post-9/11 security state while eliding democratic values of political participation and protest, all in the name of 'stability.'
Once you determine that capitalism is illegitimate, respect for other people's property rights is no longer a problem. Fortunately, the law protects people against the likes of Anonymous and other anti-capitalist heroes of the far left.
Progressives and other leftists who think DDOS, i.e. impeding the business of a person or entity with whom you disagree in order to make a political point, should consider the shoe on the other foot. If I disagree with Schneier's positions is it cool for me to crash his web site or those of other organizations with which he is affiliated, such as the Berkman Center, the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and BT (formerly British Telecom)? I could apply the same principle to anti-abortion protesters impeding access to a clinic. I'm disappointed with Schneier for implying with his link that it's legitimate to engage in DDOS attacks for political purposes.
It's worth repeating that Sauter has a point about the CFAA, particularly with respect to the sentences. It does need to be reformed — along with a large chunk of other Federal law. The point of these laws is supposed to be to protect people against the offenses of others, not to protect the offender.