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Virtual Sit-In

April 9, 2010

On March 4, as thousands of students and faculty across California took to the streets to protest budget cuts and tuition increases across the state’s university system, Ricardo Dominguez, an associate professor of visual arts at the San Diego campus, engineered a demonstration of a different kind.

Dominguez arranged for hundreds of students to register for a “virtual sit-in,” which involved logging on to the Office of the President portal on the system’s Web site and prompting the page to reload over and over. The idea was to jam the site, making it difficult for other visitors to enter — in essence, occupying the president’s virtual office, instead of his physical one, in order to make a statement.

According to news reports, Dominguez also caused the message “There is no transparency found at the UC Office of the President” to appear, in emulation of the slogans protesters might express at a conventional sit-in.

The stunt has landed the tenured professor in hot water with campus police and the San Diego administration. According to Micha Cardenas, a visual arts lecturer and Dominguez collaborator, the university is investigating Dominguez for orchestrating what is known as a “distributed denial-of-service attack,” or DDoS. The Department of Homeland Security defines a DDoS attack as an attempt “to prevent legitimate users from accessing information or services” using multiple computers.

The university has informed Dominguez that if he is found to have violated any laws or university policies, it could jeopardize his tenure status, according to Cardenas. Dominguez could not be reached.

Citing policies against discussing specific personnel issues, university officials would not talk about Dominguez’s case. They did release a statement saying, among other things, that “[e]ach campus of the University provides training regarding legal responsibilities of our employees, and has established processes by which complaints regarding allegations of misuse or illegal activity are reviewed to ensure adherence to state and federal law.”

Charles Robinson, vice president of legal affairs and general counsel at the university, said that employees could be fired if they violate state or federal laws or university policies, depending on the details of the case. Denial-of-service attacks targeted at the university could certainly be grounds for termination, Robinson said. He too declined to discuss the details of the Dominguez case.

Dominguez’s defenders are quick to distinguish his act of protest from a typical DDoS.

“A DDoS is prolonged and unending, used by various governmental groups to censor a wide variety of free speech groups, activist groups, etc, and non-transparent,” wrote Cardenas, who is a member of b.a.n.g. lab, an artists’ collective founded by Dominguez, in an online petition. “The creators of the DDoS set up virtual robots to blast a given site with millions of hits, and hide the creators behind various firewalls and filters. A virtual sit-in is open, does not use such ‘robots,’ and the creators are identified freely.”

The Homeland Security Department defines a DDoS in much sparser detail: as a denial-of-service attack that “is ‘distributed’ because the attacker is using multiple computers, including yours, to launch the denial-of-service attack.”

Cardenas circulated the online petition leading up to a scheduled meeting Thursday between Dominguez and Paul Drake, senior vice chancellor for academic affairs at the university, collecting about 1,400 signatures from around the world. Cardenas said more than a hundred students and faculty showed up for a rally outside the meeting. The meeting was postponed after Dominguez decided to retain an attorney before allowing himself to be questioned, she said.

The virtual sit-in is not the only reason Dominguez’s career may be at risk. Local lawmakers recently have gone after the professor’s Transborder Immigrant Tool, which allegedly helps illegal immigrants find water jugs and duck border agents once they are on U.S. soil.

The online petition also addressed this piece of Dominguez’s work, criticizing the university for caving to political pressure after initially approving the project for funding. To Dominguez’s champions, investigating the professor for these subversive acts after originally rewarding his work in computer-based civil disobedience with tenure is like hiring someone to paint a house and then investigating him for vandalism.

Adam Kissel, director of the individual rights defense program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said the Transborder Immigrant Tool is probably more easily defensible than the virtual sit-in. Whereas Dominguez could argue for the immigrant tool as a humanitarian effort, it would be difficult to make a rights case for the sit-in, because it in fact violated the university’s right to run an unimpeded Web site, and visitors’ right to browse it.

Cardenas, however, argued that a virtual sit-in should be allowed the same protections as the sort of assembly that inspired it. “Our right to demonstrate on the UCOP Web site is no different than staging a sit-in at [University of California System President Mark] Yudof’s office.”

 

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