Controversial cyber activist speaks at U

Ricardo Dominguez’s online actions have resulted in FBI and police investigations.

Kathryn Elliott

Ricardo Dominguez has launched cyber attacks on Pentagon servers. He developed a GPS tool that leads immigrants to water caches as they traverse the desert and attempt to enter the U.S. illegally.

Last year, Dominguez, an associate professor of visual arts at the University of California at San Diego, provoked investigations by the FBI, the San Diego police and UCSD administration when he staged a sit-in at the schoolâÄôs Office of the President  âÄî
electronically.

Dominguez and his peers consider themselves performance artists and call the digital protests âÄúThe  Electronic Disturbance Theater.âÄù
With issues of academic freedom, budgetary restructuring and tuition hikes facing the University of Minnesota âÄî the same issues Dominguez confronted at UCSD âÄî the UniversityâÄôs Department of Sociology and several others hosted Dominguez at a seminar last week.

During last yearâÄôs UCSD sit-in, Dominguez and more than 1,000 participants clicked into a Web page that counted their âÄúdigital bodiesâÄù in a cyber protest. The virtual sit-in accompanied physical marches against decreased state funding for the school of 23, 000 undergraduates. All investigations concerning DominguezâÄôs work were eventually dropped.

University of Minnesota contemporary art professor Jane Blocker said she attended the event because Dominguez is engaged in the newest kind of art practices. She said that like many artists, heâÄôs taken on the task of being a âÄúsocial agitator.âÄù
âÄúHis politics is engaged in something that affects my daily existence: What is the fate of public education when the public is giving less support to universities?âÄù she said.

Associate Vice Provost Louis Mendoza, who directs the Institute  for Diversity, Equity, and Advocacy, which co-sponsored the event, said he isnâÄôt familiar with DominguezâÄôs work but is âÄúa little bit cynical about cyber activism.âÄù

Social media and virtual protests need to be combined with real world discussions, Mendoza said.

âÄúCan it be effective? Well, perhaps,âÄù he said. âÄúIs it going to change the world? Probably not.âÄù

DominquezâÄôs Electronic Disturbance Theater uses a basic JavaScript that counts participants who join a sit-in and includes search terms that return 404 files âÄî a âÄúfile not foundâÄù error message.

Dominguez, in a Skype interview, said the servers at UCSDâÄôs Office of the President âÄî under the administration of former University of Minnesota President Mark Yudof âÄî are built to accept millions of requests, so itâÄôs unlikely that his 1,000 participants would overload the system.

Dominguez has protesters search terms like âÄústudentsâÄô rightsâÄù or âÄúdemocracyâÄù that deliver a âÄúno resultsâÄù page to show that these supposed priorities of UCSD canâÄôt be found in the administrationâÄôs digital infrastructure, he said.

Each time EDT plans a virtual sit-in, Dominguez notifies the target in advance and identifies himself as the instigator.

Jane Kirtley, a University of Minnesota professor of media ethics and law, said the ethical question behind DominguezâÄôs Electronic Disturbance Theater âÄúgoes to the heart of civil disobedience.âÄù It can be ethical to violate laws one believes are bad, she said, as long the instigator is willing to accept the consequences, including jail time.

In the case of EDTâÄôs cyber attack on the Pentagon more than a decade ago, DominguezâÄôs group conducted a distributed denial of service, where it saturated the server with millions of external requests in an attempt to block activity.

A denial of service is prohibited under federal computer crime statute and violates most Internet serversâÄô acceptable use policies.
The First Amendment guards freedom of expression but doesnâÄôt protect illegal activity, Kirtley said. âÄúTo say itâÄôs artistic expression doesnâÄôt mean youâÄôre going to get off,âÄù she said.

Students who attended DominguezâÄôs talk left with mixed reactions.

Broc Blegen, an art sophomore, said DominguezâÄôs technical language was hard to follow at times but that he admired DominguezâÄôs transparency.
Sociology professor David Pellow, a former colleague of DominguezâÄôs, proposed Dominguez for the departmentâÄôs workshop series.

As a researcher of social movements from organized labor in the 1930s to womenâÄôs rights, Pellow said he sees electronic civil disobedience as an important social movement today.

Pellow said Dominguez mixes art with public education and politics.

Blocker said she appreciated that an event her department didnâÄôt sponsor directly related to what sheâÄôs teaching her students about contemporary art.

Blocker said she tells her students, âÄúThis is the art of your time.âÄù