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Structure and Tactics of the Digital Rights Movement

This chapter documents the tactics of key SMOs and actors in the digital rights movement through brief case studies. Here I seek to map the actors in the field and position technological resistance within the movement as a whole. Importantly, as this chapter reviews the movement’s tactics, it also positions technology in a way that may decenter SMOs as the key players in mobilization. This observation is significant in the context of social movement studies, which typically position organizations as central for both framing movement issues and mobilizing resources and adherents for collective action. I do not imply that the SMOs are irrelevant in the digital rights movement—they remain a crucial component—but rather that hackers and their wares are new and important players that can shift and have shifted movement dynamics. The fact that technological resistance is a very important tactic in the movement repertoire is illustrated by the myriad protest and mobilization strategies presented in the case of each organization. These organizations, like organizations in other social movements, play to their strengths, adopting tactics that suit their members’ skill set and resources (McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald 1996).

Digital Rights Movement Organizations and Their Tactics

As of 2011, there were twenty-five identified organizations that actively engage in advocating the issues of the digital rights movement (table 8.1), many of which focus on issues of access and use of copyrighted material. (Appendix C lists these organizations and their mission statements.)

Table 8.1

Digital Rights Movement Organizations and Classification



Creative Commons

Nongovernmental Organization (NGO)

Free Software Foundation


Samuelson Law, Technology, and Public Policy Clinic, Berkeley Boalt School of Law

law clinic



Global Internet Liberty Campaign


Lawrence Lessig Blog


Electronic Privacy Information Center




Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Harvard Law School

legal center

Center for Democracy and Technology


Public Knowledge


Center for Internet and Society, Stanford Law School


Chilling Effects: Cease-and-Desist Clearinghouse


Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility


American Libraries Association


Downhill Battle


Free Culture

grassroots organization in transition to NGO

Privacy Rights


Digital Future Coalition


Participatory Culture Foundation/Get Democracy


Future of Music


Our Media

NGO–grassroots organization

America Association of Law Libraries


Homer Recording Rights Coalition

industry–consumer coalition

Association for Computing Machinery


Not all organizations that work on issues pertinent to the digital rights movement are presented in table 8.1, and of those included, I discuss only the ones that have shown through research to be exemplars of theoretical points particular to the movement and that stand out as leaders.

The tactical repertoire of a movement—the tool set that a social movement uses to further its cause—may include a host of strategies involving (1) choice in organizational structure (grass roots or social movement or both); (2) types of mobilization undertaken (institutional or extrainstitutional); (3) framing strategies that try to capture the meanings of the social movement (e.g., media capture); and (4) technological design (as in iTunes hacks). This chapter describes three SMOs—the EFF, Creative Commons, and Downhill Battle—which together represent the full spectrum of tactics used in the digital rights movement.


The EFF fits the traditional definition of an SMO. It relies on its constituency for support and engages in both institutional and extrainstitutional tactics to further movement goals.

The EFF broadly engages the issues of the digital rights movement, focusing not only on copyright issues, but also on privacy and consumer rights in technology and entertainment products; free-speech issues such as blogger’s rights, censorship online, and filtering systems; privacy issues such as biometrics and expansion of the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) of 1994;1 and intellectual property in digital networks and other digital technologies (see table 8.2). The EFF has confronted a number of intellectual-property issues, including: expanded trademark powers, expanded global intellectual-property regimes through multilateral treaties, and copyright issues both at home and abroad.

Table 8.2

List of Issues Covered by the EFF




Advocacy against regulation that would take away anonymous communication over digital networks


Advocacy against the deployment of biometric technology that might infringe on privacy and discriminate

Bloggers’ rights

Advocacy of journalistic protection of free speech for bloggers

Broadcast flag

Advocacy against transmission of a security signal on television content that would dictate copyright management for digital receivers such as TiVo or digital televisions


Advocacy against the expansion of the CALEA, which would allow for easier wire tapping of Internet communications


Advocacy against the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS) by the Transportation Security Administration, a profiling program that would require airline passengers to surrender personal information


Advocacy against censorship of all manner of speech (commercial and noncommercial) online

Copyright law

Advocacy of a broad set of copyright freedoms, including limitations on DRM technology, curtailment of the DMCA, freedom with domain names, and protection of file-sharing technologies, with the main goal to increase creative freedom, freedom to innovate, consumer rights, free speech, and academic freedom


Advocacy for openness in e-voting technology, implementation of fail-safes and research


Advocacy against browser-filtering systems implemented in public-use terminals such as libraries

International trade

Advocacy against the Free Trade Area of the Americas legislative initiative that would require signatory nations to implement anticircumvention provisions like the DMCA’s section 1201

Internet governance

Advocacy for core issues such as privacy and free speech in the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers regulation

ISP legalities

Advocacy for limited liability for ISPs in cases of intellectual-property violation

The EFF spends much of its energies in mustering support for laws that expand the digital rights cause. It has historically attempted to organize action against legislative initiatives it has perceived as a threat to digital rights. A list of some legislation that concerns the EFF is presented in table 8.3.

Table 8.3

Partial List of Pending Laws That the EFF Has Lobbied For or Against


EFF’s Action

Audio Broadcast Flag Licensing Act of 2006 and the Digital Content Protection Act of 2006

Fights against a mandate on digital radio and TV manufacturers to place technology that would implement audio signal security limiting copying functions for specific broadcast content.

The National Security Agency’s Domestic Surveillance Program

Fights for strict investigation of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program.

Digital Transition Content Security Act (HR 4569, “Analog Hole bill”)

Fights against placement of watermarking technology on all audio/visual media players to prevent postprocessing capture of content.

WIPO’s Treaty on the Protection of Broadcasting Organizations

Fights against giving copyrights to broadcasters even if the content is openly licensed by the creators.

Radio Frequency Identification tag legislation in California

Fights against Radio Frequency Identification tags in state identification cards such as drivers’ licenses.

Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act

“Fights for mandate requiring a paper audit trail for all electronic voting machines, random audits, and public availability of all code used in elections” (EFF 2005).

Digital Media Consumers’ Rights Act

Fights for legislation that “would give citizens the right to circumvent copy-protection measures as long as what they’re doing is otherwise legal” (EFF 2005).

National Weather Services Duties Act

Lobbies against legislation that would limit the National Weather Service’s release of weather data to the public when those data compete with commercial interests.

Trademark Dilution Revision Act

Lobbies against legislation that would expand trademark powers and increase the liability of supposed infringers.

Commensurate with its issue campaigns, the EFF has supported legislation that would expand user rights in digital media currently protected by copy-control technologies (such as the Digital Media Consumers’ Rights Act, still pending). It has set up prewritten form letters that can be e-mailed to representatives who support legislation that is unpopular within the movement (figure 8.1), and maintains an updated “Action Alert” section on its Web site with information about pending legislation that can affect its constituency. The EFF has done most of its work in the courts, taking on defense roles in the Sklyarov case, the DeCSS cases, and others not discussed in this work (such as Felten et al. v. RIAA, US District Court [NJ 2001]).

Figure 8.1

Figure 8.1

Image of a form letter that can be directly emailed to a congressperson opposing the Digital Transition Content Security Act (HR 4569).

The EFF’s role in landmark court cases in the movement has been pivotal in rallying support for the movement, defining the frames of the cases, and providing legal support. As noted earlier, in the Sklyarov case the EFF proved crucial in negotiations with Adobe, leading to Adobe’s public statements against the Department of Justice even though Adobe had prompted it to initiate the investigation and provided important information leading to Sklyarov’s arrest. Furthermore, the EFF served as a focal point for distributing information, linking groups that were actively protesting Adobe, helping to organize a defense fund, and providing initial legal support. The continuous press releases by the EFF in the Sklyarov case also helped define the case in terms of free speech and freedom of innovation. For example, almost immediately after Sklyarov’s arrest the EFF mobilized protest and framed the case to its advantage, as in the following press release that helped organize protest against Adobe:

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and community activists urge concerned citizens to join in a San Francisco Bay Area protest on Monday, July 23, against software firm Adobe’s role in the jailing of programmer Dmitry Sklyarov. . . . Adobe, seeking to protect electronic property rights at any cost, has apparently pushed the U.S. Department of Justice into an ill-advised arrest of a Russian programmer under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. . . . Our hearts go out to Dmitry’s wife, children, and colleagues who are likely distraught by what appears to be a most disgraceful arrest. . . . We protest Adobe’s role in perpetrating this grave miscarriage of justice. . . . The San Francisco Bay Area protest will occur at Adobe Headquarters, from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm this Monday, July 23. Protestors will gather in San Jose at the Quetzalcoatl snake sculpture at the south end of Cesar de Chavez Park, at the corner of South Market St. and West San Carlos St, then march to Adobe Headquarters at 345 Park Avenue in San Jose. . . . Protest organizers include the Electronic Frontier Foundation,, and a loose-knit group of activists linked together through the free-sklyarov email list. The organizers request that attendees bring along U.S. or Russian flags and signs. Free T-shirts from a group called BoycottAdobe .com will be distributed to the first fifty attendees. (EFF 2001d)

The EFF also has adopted a strategy of providing its constituency with as much primary documentation as possible. On its Web site, for example, it dedicated a whole section to the Sklyarov case, making available deposition transcripts, transcripts of testimonies, and transcripts of hearings, briefs, and court orders almost instantaneously, usually within twenty-four hours after they were issued. For example, between December 2001 and December 2002, the EFF made available more than twenty-one primary documents from the Sklyarov case in a large archive that was easily accessible (EFF 2001a) (see figure 8.2).

Figure 8.2

Figure 8.2

Archive of DVD CCA v. Sklyarov documents on the EFF Web site. From EFF 2001a.

This level of transparency gave the EFF a substantial amount of credibility because its press releases could be read against the reality of the court proceedings and judged on those merits. This transparency became increasingly important in the DeCSS case, where the MPAA fought to keep the proceedings secret.

In both DeCSS cases, the EFF took advantage of its ability to distribute information and provide links to primary documents. Also, by leading the defense, the EFF was able to gain some important allies in the fight against the DMCA. As noted in tables 6.1 and 6.2, many of the most prominent scholars in the field of digital copyright spoke out in favor of DeCSS. Thus, although the EFF had a mixture of success in these court cases, it positioned itself as a central actor in the digital rights movement by actively supporting the defendants.

Following the Sklyarov, DeCSS, and other cases, the EFF organized a mobilization campaign that involved activism at many levels. Its Campaign for Audiovisual Free Expression (CAFÉ) was a direct response to the entertainment industry’s attempts to enforce the DMCA’s anticircumvention provisions. During the CAFÉ, which was active between 2001 and late 2003, the EFF sought to mobilize its constituency in a number of ways. First, the CAFÉ section of the EFF’s Web site acted as an information resource, collecting headlines regarding important issues that involved the DMCA, such as the RIAA’s campaign against peer-to-peer file sharing, the use of the DMCA to block information on e-voting machines from being distributed online, awareness-raising notices over changes in contract law that would allow stringent licensing in software, DRM on digital television recorders, and other anti-DRM topics.

The campaign also coordinated letter-writing initiatives, mostly against unpopular bills that curtailed user rights over legally bought content or against legislation that prevented the development of circumvention and distribution technologies with legitimate uses. As noted earlier, the EFF made letter writing simple by automating the process though its Web site. Its approach to achieving social change was comparatively traditional. Working within institutional frameworks, it gathered allies to its cause (prominent technologists and law professors, for example) and worked within the courts and the legislature to change policy in digital copyright.

Despite its institutional approach, the EFF did use some extrainstitutional tactics, such as the protests organized during the Sklyarov case. Also, it attempted to define the frames in the fight over digital rights in music. The EFF and its supporters, for example, actively countered the RIAA’s pamphletting in Los Angeles and New York with their own pamphlets and bumper stickers (figure 8.3). In an act of what activists called “guerrilla remixing,” EFF supporters placed the bumper stickers illustrated in figure 8.4 over the RIAA’s own pamphlets (which read, “Feed a musician, download legally”), crystallizing an important theoretical point in social movement theory: meaning matters, and contests over meaning are important for cohesion and continuance of the movement.

Figure 8.3

Figure 8.3

Pamphlet released by the EFF to counter the DMCA and RIAA’s campaign against peer-to-peer technologies.

Figure 8.4

Figure 8.4

Image of the RIAA’s pamphlet with the EFF’s sticker over part of the slogan. From

Although it is probably the case that the EFF did not coordinate this contest on the walls of the streets of US cities, it did do much to create and foster the user-centered meanings assigned to fair use and digital rights. Other organizations in the digital rights movement also engaged in this sort of tactic and took it to much greater levels.

Creative Commons: Restructuring the Legal Structure

One of the most important developments in the digital rights movement was the founding of Creative Commons in 2001 by Lawrence Lessig and students and fellows of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford. Creative Commons has for the most part stayed out of the courts (although Lessig has argued some important cases such as Eldred v. Ashcroft [537 US 186] in 2003). Also, as noted earlier, SMOs typically play to their strengths, and in this case Creative Commons has used legal expertise differently than the EFF.

Creative Commons deploys an ingenious tactic against the restrictive elements of copyright in digital media. Rather than undermine copyright law outright, it has devised a set of licenses that allow artists to give consumers certain rights as a default while reserving some rights for themselves. In a framing strategy intended to capture the social and legal purchase of the copyright symbol ©, it came up with its own symbol for its licenses (see figure 8.5). It also designed various licenses that can be offered to the consumer, the six most popular of which are listed in table 8.4. Its tactic is important because it captures the licensing convention that has served copyright owners so well. By using contract and flexible licenses, Creative Commons presents copyright owners with the possibility of maintaining more open contractual relationships with consumers. Its licensing schemes reenvision the consumer as someone who may want to take an active part in the creative process. Much like hackers working on technological resistance, the licensing scheme has layered functions. It serves a symbolic function by challenging the emblems of copyright ownership and putting alternative spins on well-known visual images (for example, the backward © to illustrate the reverse of copyright, a reversal borrowed from the open-source movement). It also serves a functional purpose by creating legally binding contracts that will enjoy the same protection as other commercial contracts and a structural purpose by creating an ownership scheme parallel to copyright. This new contract with the consumer creates a user–creator relationship that undermines typical conceptions of how consumers and creators should interact. In the case of Creative Commons, success is gauged by adoption. It would serve the movement little to propose a licensing scheme that no one uses, just as it would serve the movement little to design technologies that no one uses. But Creative Commons has enjoyed enormous success; writers such as Cory Doctorow, Eric Raymond, and Lawrence Lessig have published works using Creative Commons licenses. Lessig wrote the second edition of his popular book Code (1999) as a wiki project under a Creative Commons license.

Figure 8.5

Figure 8.5

Creative Commons symbol. From Creative Commons 2005.

Table Not Found

The project is a testament to social computing, participatory culture, and flexible, user-centered copyright. Universities have released educational content under Creative Commons licenses, and bloggers have widely adopted Creative Commons licenses for their content. Furthermore, digital publishing software applications such as Adobe Acrobat now include an authoring tool that allows the writer to set Creative Commons permissions on documents generated with Adobe. Within a year of the founding of Creative Commons, more than one million products were licensed with its license. The organization has started work on projects such as iCommons, an initiative to export the Creative Commons licenses to countries outside the United States, and Science Commons, an initiative to bring Creative Commons licensing to scientific publications and work.2

Whereas Creative Commons has attempted to capture the legal structure for the movement’s purposes, other organizations and individuals hope to capture its technological structure through extrainstitutional tactics and hacking. The organization Downhill Battle is such case.

Downhill Battle, Grey Tuesday, and the Battle Labs

Downhill Battle was a not-for-profit organization founded in 2003 and based out of Worcester, Massachusetts (it is no longer active). It engaged a variety of issues working toward widespread or decentralized cultural production. It encouraged, for example, the use of peer-to-peer technologies to foster the distribution of independent artists’ music to help them remain outside major media control. Its mission statement read:

Five major record labels have a monopoly that’s bad for musicians and music culture, but now we have an opportunity to change that. We can use tools like filesharing to strengthen independent labels and end the major label monopoly.

How do musicians get paid for downloads? Simple: collective licensing lets people download unlimited music for a flat monthly fee ($5–$10) and the money goes to musicians and labels according to popularity. This solution preserves the cultural benefits of p2p, gets musicians way more money, and levels the playing field.

Our plan is to explain how the majors really work, develop software to make filesharing stronger, rally public support for a legal p2p compensation system, and connect independent music scenes with the free culture movement. (Downhill Battle 2005a)

Its activities, however, went beyond the use of peer-to-peer technologies to achieve a “free culture” whose central tenet was access. Downhill Battle coordinated what it called acts of “digital civil disobedience” and developed technologies to counter the technolegal order established by digital copyright.

Digital Civil Disobedience: Grey Tuesday

During two weeks in December 2003, DJ Brian Burton (known as Danger Mouse) holed up in his Los Angeles home and produced one of the most critically acclaimed hip-hop albums of 2004. The Grey Album, as Burton called it, brought together the vocals of hip-hop artist Jay-Z’s Black Album with the music from the Beatles’ White Album. The fusion of the Beatles’ pop and the hard-core rap lyrics from Jay-Z melded two otherwise disparate genres into a coherent thread that was at once novel and familiar. It made widely evident the power of both digital technology and participatory culture, prompting one fan quoted in the New York Times to note, “[T]o a lot of artists and bedroom D.J.’s, who are now able to easily edit and remix digital files of their favorite songs using inexpensive computers and software, pop music has become source material for sonic collages” (Werde 2004).

Burton sent the tracks to some of his friends, and in a matter of days The Grey Album was a heavily sought-after album. Burton had about three thousand CD copies of the album made for promotion and distributed some of them over a period of a month. By the beginning of February, copies had made their way onto e-Bay, selling for as much as eighty dollars per CD. They were also found on the shelves of indy hip-hop music shops. The album even had cover art designed to show its sampling roots (see figure 8.6).

Figure 8.6

Figure 8.6

Cover of Brian Burton’s The Grey Album. Design by Justin Hampton.

Once the album became so well known, EMI, which controls the Beatles catalog (the owners of the copyrights on the Beatles catalog are Sony and Michael Jackson’s estate), sent Burton a cease-and-desist letter. Burton immediately pulled the album files from his Web site (he had also been distributing them online for free) and stopped giving out the promotional demos. But in Internet time it was too late. When news of EMI’s cease-and-desist letter was reported on Wired and other news services, The Grey Album became a hot commodity on peer-to-peer networks, and activist groups such as Downhill Battle started to voice their objections.

At the heart of their complaints was an understanding that copyright law had swung too far in the direction of copyright owners. Activists argued that if copyright was supposed to foster further creativity by granting only limited monopolies, then ever-expanding copyright terms and restrictive regulation had now defeated the very purpose of its design. Jonathan Zittrain of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School agreed with this critique, noting that

[c]opyright law was written with a particular form of industry in mind. The flourishing of information technology gives amateurs and home-recording artists powerful tools to build and share interesting, transformative, and socially valuable art drawn from pieces of popular culture. There’s no place to plug such an important cultural sea change into the current legal regime. (Zittrain quoted in Werde 2004)

Within a few days of EMI’s cease-and-desist letter, Downhill Battle set up the corollary site and started organizing “Grey Tuesday” as a day that activists would distribute The Grey Album over the Internet in violation of copyright law. In its announcement, Downhill Battle stated:

This first-of-its-kind protest signals a refusal to let major label lawyers control what musicians can create and what the public can hear. The Grey Album is only one of the thousands of legitimate and valuable efforts that have been stifled by the record industry—not to mention the ones that were never even attempted because of the current legal climate. We cannot allow these corporations to continue censoring art; we need common-sense reforms to copyright law that can make sampling legal and practical for artists. (Downhill Battle 2004)

When Downhill Battle announced its plans, it received an overwhelming wave of support from individuals and Web site owners, who volunteered to distribute the album. Downhill Battle reported on its site that “more than 400 sites are currently listed as participating in the protest. At this point, we are receiving hundreds of emails from sites that are going grey and we simply can’t keep that list up to date, but that support means a lot and we are thrilled that so many sites are getting involved” (Downhill Battle 2004).

EMI had sent its cease-and-desist letter on February 14, 2004, and on Tuesday, February 24, 2004, activists around the world hosted The Grey Album for twenty-four hours. At the end of the day, Downhill reported: “After a survey of the sites that hosted files during Grey Tuesday, and an analysis of filesharing activity on that day, we can confidently report that the Grey Album was the number one album in the US on February 24 by a large margin. Danger Mouse moved more ‘units’ than Norah Jones and Kanye West, with well over 100,000 copies downloaded. That’s more than 1 million digital tracks” (Downhill Battle 2005a).

Although these figures have not been independently verified, the New York Times reported that “ reached the top ranking on Blogdex and Popdex, Web sites that track which sites are being linked to from blogs” (Werde 2004). Thus, although the figures reported by Downhill are difficult to validate, the fact that its site was linked so extensively and that The Grey Album remains available on peer-to-peer networks to this day, suggests that if the numbers were not achieved in February 24, 2004, they certainly must have been by now.

Besides being critically lauded by Rolling Stone, the Boston Globe, The New Yorker, and other outlets, media coverage of The Grey Album and Grey Tuesday was widespread and contributed to the event’s reported success. Burton was portrayed as an artist doing art for art’s sake. When asked by The New Yorker if he thought the album would ever be released commercially, he noted, “Hell, no. . . . That’s one of the things I struggled with. I told myself, ‘Never will this come out. . . . Must still do . . . must still do” (quoted in Greenman 2004). The media’s response to Grey Tuesday was largely positive. MTV News, AllHipHop News, Wired News, the BBC, Billboard Magazine, the Boston Globe, Reuters, and other news outlets reported the story, portraying Burton as an avant-garde artist experimenting with a new and exciting medium.

In response to Grey Tuesday, EMI sent more than 150 cease-and-desist letters to the Web site owners it could identify, only to be largely ignored. By all accounts, the Grey Tuesday event was a great success for Downhill Battle and for the digital rights movement. It reached a wide constituency and made record companies seem like bullies for using copyright law to stifle creativity and intimidate music listeners.

Grey Tuesday spawned a new project at Downhill Battle. The Web site was meant to showcase work similar to Burton’s, all with a clear political message regarding copyright and sampling. For example, one of BannedMusic’s projects was an exhibit called Illegal Art, and on that section of the site one could obtain a CD of sample-heavy music (itself titled Illegal Art), whose liner notes make clear the distributors’ commitments regarding copyright and sampling:

For our culture to be a space for free expression and for creativity to flourish, audio artists must be able to build on bits and pieces of preexisting music. While the “fair use” doctrine allows artists to appropriate other works, it does so only in cases of commentary or parody. Fair use doesn’t apply to the majority of “second-takers,” those artists who reuse sounds without directly referring to the original. Most of these tracks would never have existed if the artists had adhered to copyright law. Many other works might never be heard unless we act soon to grant artists the right to create them. (“Illegal Art Audio” 2004)

Creating digital outlets for music that violates copyright law as an act of civil disobedience was not the only tactic in Downhill’s toolkit. It also sponsored a section on its site called “Battle Labs.”

Downhill Battle’s Battle Labs: Restructuring Technological Enforcement

Battle Labs was designed to coordinate and introduce software consistent with Downhill Battle’s mission. It made “free, open-source software for online organizing and strategic file-sharing” (Downhill Battle 2005b).

Battle Labs3 worked on or proposed a number of projects. Of the projects listed in table 8.5, all are open-source projects collaboratively developed on the site. They fall into two categories: resource- management technologies and resistance technologies. The resource-management technologies, such as Battle Cart, Defense Fund, and Donation Bats, have helped organizations manage fund-raising. Local Link, Tabling Database, and DHB Chapter Sites helped Downhill Battle manage its people by streamlining scheduling for pamphletting, Web site design, and letter writing, respectively. Resistance technologies do not manage resources but rather are subversive by creating technological architectures that can help the digital rights movement live out its mission. Local Wi-Fi File Sharing, iTMS4All, Broadcast Machine, and BlogTorrent are examples of resistance technologies designed by Downhill Battle. Local Wi-Fi File Sharing untethers peer-to-peer file sharing from the confines of fixed servers; iTMS4All can undo DRM for iTunes, and Broadcast Machine and BlogTorrent allow users to turn their blogs into video broadcast stations using the BitTorrent protocol, which greatly improves file-transfer efficiency.

Table 8.5

Technology-Development Projects for Downhill Battle’s Battle Labs Circa 2005



Status of Project

Local Ink

Server-side application that will search for newspapers in user’s area and generate a form “Letter to the Editor” regarding restrictive copyright issue. Also allows the user to write letter.


Battle Cart

Server-side application that allows small organizations such as nonprofits to sell items for fund-raising purposes. It interfaces with PayPal, a trusted online bill-paying service.



Allows users to upload movies and share them on their blogs using the BitTorrent file-sharing protocol.


Broadcast Machine

Next-generation BlogTorrent allows users to set up RSS feeds for video content on their blogs. Thus, a user can establish channels similar to RSS text channels. Using the BitTorrent file-sharing protocol, transfers are theoretically faster and bandwidth shared among blog readers who have the torrent seed for the video file.


Defense Fund

Server-side application that allows activists to collect donations for multiple entities. Donations are routed through PayPal and distributed evenly among the group automatically.



“Perl script that can access Apple’s iTunes Music Store.”

Not functional

DHB Chapter Sites

Web site development kit to help activists easily set up Web sites.

Under development

Copy Finder

Networking tool that helped activists in a network list resources available to them such as copy services, supplies, or other essentials. The application allowed users to find each other based on these needs.

Under development

Tabling Database

“The software will keep a calendar database of who’s doing what on what day, and automatically sends email reminders beforehand and a request for feedback afterwards. This would also function as a general calendar of events where there would be a Downhill Battle presence.”


Donation Bats

Mirroring Howard Dean’s donation tracker, a tool that will integrate with Battle Cart and graphically track progress toward a fund-raising goal.

Under development

Local Wi-Fi File Sharing

Easy-to-use application that will allow a user to use mobile computers to set up a wireless peer-to-peer server.

Developed but needs to be made user-friendly

Source: From Downhill Battle 2005b.

Broadcast Machine and BlogTorrent in particular are technologies of note. They bring together important social-computing applications that have revolutionized participatory culture online. They harness the power of a blog’s streamlined content production and distribution system by adding a layer of efficiency and ease to the blog’s ability to distribute more complex content (such as video) via Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds. They do this by melding the blog technology with BitTorrent, a file-sharing protocol that distributes the bandwidth required to transfer large files over the populations in the network. With each host contributing a piece of the file to the downloader, the bandwidth usage is shared by the community as a whole, and the file is transferred quickly. The person downloading from the network also subsequently becomes a server, distributing the bits he or she has downloaded to others who need them even though her own download is not yet complete. Therefore, although many on the network may start off with incomplete versions of a desired file, so long as there is at least one full copy on the network and the network is up, all will eventually have the file and will get it faster than if it were transferred from a single complete source host. The network, then, is a “torrent of bits” that together make the whole file. At the risk of sounding overly optimistic, I believe that Broadcast Machine and BlogTorrent are truly revolutionary because they allow the lone user to have the power to broadcast video over the net efficiently—something that only major outlets that can afford the bandwidth can currently do. If current trends in social computing and participatory culture on the Internet continue, then these types of technologies will greatly help the process of making broadcasters out of all who have access to a computer and an Internet connection.

It is important here to make a further distinction among the examples of resistance technologies discussed throughout the book. Some of those technologies are infrastructures of distribution, and so although not directly circumventing copy-protection measures, they serve to create the technological world where the practice of sharing content is possible. Other technologies such as iTMS4All were circumvention technologies, and those resistance technologies serve to gain access to content. Together, infrastructure and circumvention tools form a repertoire of technological affordances that can realize movement goals.

The Battle Labs’ work is the best example of an organized attempt to use technological resistance within the context of an SMO. In fact, Downhill Battle was the only organization that did this at the time I conducted my research from 2005 to 2006. All other technologies that one might consider resistance technologies have come from hacker communities that cannot be classified as SMOs in any conventional sense.

This brings us to a fourth key player in the movement—a player who does not fit the model of an SMO and is not mentioned in my introduction to this chapter, but who has had an important impact on the movement: the hacker.

The Hacker as a Force in the Movement

I discussed earlier the work of hackers such as Jon Johansen and the developers of Hymn and other iTunes hacks, illustrating how hackers’ rapid responses and continuous development put constant pressure on media outlets such as the iTMS to continue to devise ways of technologically safeguarding content and contracts. The same can be said of other instances where technological protection mechanisms were challenged by circumvention technologies designed to expand user access to copyrighted content, as in CSS and DeCSS, eBook protection and the AEBPR, and FairPlay and the iTunes Hacks. The presence of skilled activists and hackers who continue to design technological resistance has important consequences for the social movement structure, specifically with regard to how direct action is applied against the establishment.

In the conventional sense, direct action involves disturbances of the ordered practices of the system under attack. These disturbances include sit-ins, marches that block streets, and violent direct actions such as clashes with police or other authorities. In the case of using technological means as a form of direct action, scholarship on what Tim Jordan (2002) has called “hacktivism” points to an emerging use of technological disturbances that can be characterized as mass virtual direct action (MVDA). In MVDA, large numbers of activists employ information communication technology such as the Internet to engage in disruptive information politics, where the flows and ownership of information are challenged via technological means. For example, denial-of-service attacks are made on corporation sites by either coordinating many activists to continuously click on a site or designing an application that does this automatically. In either case, the target site is incapacitated by the overload of requests. These types of direct action can be performed by many activists or by a single hacker.

Technological resistance goes further than MVDA by creating alternative technologies whose adoption and continued use structure behaviors consistent with the goals of the digital rights movement. Thus, iTunes hacks such as PyMusique are important not only because they defeat the iTunes DRM system, but because they create a technological world without DRM by replacing iTunes altogether. Technologies that create distribution architecture such as peer-to-peer file sharing or those highlighted in the case of Battle Labs also do this.

Furthermore, adoption of technological resistance restructures the relationship between SMOs and collective action. Collective action is traditionally dependent on some level of centralized organization that can coordinate participants for the collective-action event—a sit-in or a march, for example (McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald 1996). With technological resistance, the hackers or the designers of these technologies become important, and the use of the technology by many becomes the collective action. Given that the Internet can help distribute technological resistance technologies to many participants, one lone hacker or hacker community can be the driving force behind collective use of a technology of resistance. No longer are the SMO’s resources needed as much for this type of coordination, and the level of ideological commitment from participants can be slight because they may simply have functional commitment to the technology as opposed to believing in the politics of the technology.

This finding reflects discussion within both social movement studies and network studies on the possibility of effecting change and organized collective action without organizations, the impact of the Internet on traditional means of organization, and the impact of social networks on organizational importance in some contexts (Earl and Schussman 2003; Postigo 2010; Shirky 2008; Tarrow 1994).


Analysis of the digital rights movement’s tactical repertoire illustrates the use of information communication technology and software in acts of “hacktivism” to further a political agenda. Importantly, the movement seeks to alter the status quo in digital copyright by undermining the established order by committing acts of disobedience and by creating alternative legal and technological worlds. The work of Creative Commons to create alternative licensing and of hackers to design applications that circumvent or make DRM impossible illustrates this trend. Although SMOs play an important role in the digital rights movement (the EFF being a key organization), use of technological resistance has placed the hacker or anyone technologically savvy enough to design technological resistance in a position of prominence in the movement.

It is important to note that the names of individual hackers seldom come to mind when one considers the network of SMOs currently active in the movement (as seen in table 8.5). Hacker activities are typically outside the realm of what SMOs do. If SMOs were to engage in hacking, it would undermine their credibility in institutional environments. Thus, the EFF does not link to any hackers creating anti-DRM technology, but it does encourage them indirectly (in 2001 the EFF awarded Jon Johansen an Innovation Award for his work on DeCSS). Analysis of the movement’s tactics shows a division of labor, where most SMOs stay an institutional course to maintain legitimacy, and hackers work behind the scenes to achieve technological resistance. Only Downhill Battle actively engaged in the design of technologies meant to undermine technological copyright protection. The division of labor can be attributed to institutional histories. SMOs do what they do best: they mobilize the resources they are most familiar with. Historically, for example, the EFF has been involved in courtroom battles and in the halls of Congress. It is an organization that needs to retain legal legitimacy if it wishes to continue its fight in these arenas, so its design and distribution of illegal technologies would greatly affect that legitimacy.

Hackers play an important role, too, though, because they do not formally belong to the SMOs, yet use of their technologies has the disruptive effects of collective action. This fact gives the movement a novel dynamic that places much power in the hands of a few savvy technologists.

Additional Information

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MARC Record
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