Article Volume 56:1

Technological Self-Help and Equality in Cyberspace

Table of Contents

McGill Law Journal ~ Revue de droit de McGill



Jennifer A. Chandler*

New technologies challenge the law in many
ways, for example, they extend ones capacity to harm
others and to defend oneself from harm by others.
These changes require the law to decide whether we
have legal rights to be free from those harms, and
whether we may react against those harms extrajudi-
cially through some form of self-help (e.g., self-defence
or defence of third parties) or whether we must resort
to legal mechanisms alone. These questions have been
challenging to answer in the cyberspace context, where
new interests and new harms have emerged. The legal
limits on permissible self-defence have historically
been a function of necessity and proportionality to the

However, this article argues that case law and
historical commentary reveal that equality between
individuals is also an important policy issue underly-
ing the limits on self-defence. The use of technologies
in self-defence brings the question of equality to the
fore since technologies may sometimes neutralize an
inequality in strength between an attacker and a de-
fender. A legal approach that limits resort to techno-
logical tools in self-defence would ratify and preserve
that inequality.

However, the relationship between technology
and human equality is complex, and this article pro-
poses an analytical structure for understanding it. The
objective is to understand which technologies promote
equality while imposing the least social costs when
used in self-defence. The article proposes principles
(including explicit consideration of the effects on equal-
ity) for setting limits on technological self-help, and il-
lustrates their use by applying them to several forms
of cyberspace counter-strikes against hackers, phish-
ers, spammers, and peer-to-peer networks.

Les nouvelles technologies posent de nombreux
dfis en droit. titre dexemple, elles augmentent la
capacit des individus dinfliger du mal autrui, mais
aussi leur capacit se dfendre du mal. Ces
changements exigent du droit de dcider si nous avons
ou non le droit, juridiquement parlant, dtre labri du
mal. Le droit doit aussi dcider si nous sommes libres
de ragir au mal de
faon extrajudiciaire, par
lentremise dinitiatives personnelles (par exemple,
lauto-dfense ou la dfense des tierces parties) ou si au
contraire nous devons nous en tenir aux mcanismes
juridiques. Ces questions posent un dfi particulier
dans le contexte du cyberespace, do mergent de
nouvelles menaces et des intrts nouveaux. Les limites
juridiques de
lautodfense permissible dpendent
historiquement de la ncessit et de la proportionnalit
de la raction face la menace.

Cet article soutient toutefois que la jurisprudence et
les commentaires historiques rvlent que lgalit entre
individus constitue aussi une question de politique
importante qui sous-tend les limites de lautodfense.
Lutilisation des technologies dans lautodfense porte
donc au premier plan la question de lgalit puisque la
technologie peut parfois neutraliser une ingalit de force
entre une personne qui attaque et une autre qui se
dfend. Une approche juridique qui limiterait lutilisation
doutils technologiques dans lautodfense entrinerait et
prserverait cette ingalit.

Pourtant, la relation entre la technologie et
lgalit entre humains est complexe. Cet article
propose une structure analytique pour mieux saisir
cette relation. Lobjectif est de comprendre quelles
technologies favorisent lgalit tout en imposant les
cots sociaux les moins levs lorsquelles sont utilises
pour lautodfense. Larticle propose des principes pour
mettre en place certaines limites aux initiatives
personnelles technologiques. Larticle illustre aussi
lutilisation de ces principes en les appliquant de
nombreuses formes de riposte contre les pirates
informatiques, les hammeonneurs, les polluposteurs et
les rseaux pair pair. Enfin, larticle considre
explicitement les effets de ces principes sur lgalit.

* Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa. I thank the anonymous peer
reviewers for their useful comments and suggestions. I also gratefully acknowledge the
support of ORNEC (the Ontario Research Network for Electronic Commerce) for my
work on legal responses to identity theft, out of which this paper also emerged.

Citation: (2010) 56:1 McGill LJ 39 ~ Rfrence : (2010) 56 : 1 RD McGill 39

Jennifer A. Chandler 2010




Defining Self-Help, Technology, and Equality
A. Self-Help

B. A Definition of Technology and Technological Self-Help
C. A Definition of Equality

1. A Definition of Self-Help
2. The Reasons For and Against Allowing Self-Help


The Relationship Between Technology and Equality


Principles for Technological Self-Help
A. Proposed Principles for Technological Self-Help
B. Some Forms of Self-Help in Cyberspace

C. Application of the Principles to Self-Help in Cyberspace

1. Denial of Service Attacks
2. Counterstrikes, Malware, and Hacking
3. Data Poisoning
4. Defamation Attacks









Self-help refers to a set of actions that the law permits people to take
in the pursuit of their legal rights. The law has long permitted various
forms of self-help, including self-defence, the defence of property, and the
defence of third parties, although only within cautious bounds. One area
of ongoing debate regarding self-help is whether counter-strikes should be
permitted in cyberspace against, for example, hackers, phishers, spam-
mers, and peer-to-peer networks. The difficulty and inefficacy of law en-
forcement onlineparticularly in dealing with the high volume of fraud
and other financial harmshas resulted in self-protection becoming the
normal recourse and has also encouraged more aggressive forms of self-
defence (as an alternative to invoking state protection).

Self-defence is permissible when it is necessary and when the action is
reasonably proportional to the threat. The issue of the inequality in
strength between parties is not an explicit consideration in assessing
whether a given action in self-defence is permissible or not, although it is
considered implicitly. This article argues that the issue of equality of
strengthunderstood more broadly than physical strength aloneshould
be an explicit criterion for determining the proper limits on the use of
technologies in self-defence.
Where an attacker and a defender are of unequal strength, a legal ap-
proach that prohibits resort to technological tools in self-defence would
ratify and preserve that inequality. In these cases, technologies could neu-
tralize the inequality in strength; for example, the nineteenth-century
nickname for the Colt handgun was the Equalizer. As is the case with
the handgun, technologies may raise the risks associated with self-help
and may impose other social harms while at the same time having this
equalizing effect. Another problem with permitting the use of technologies
in this way is that it may fuel a technological arms race, as parties seek to
gain the technological advantage. Regulatory choices about such tech-
nologies and the willingness to condone their use in self-defence require a
balancing of these competing considerations.

The relationship between technology and human equality is complex,
and this article proposes an analytical structure for understanding it. The
objective is to understand which technologies promote equality while im-
posing the least social costs in terms of escalating violence, accidental
harm to bystanders, and wasteful arms racing. Such technologies should
be permissible for use in self-defence, subject to the possible requirement
that users compensate injured bystanders.

The article will proceed in the following way. First, I explain the terms
self-help, technology, and equality as I define them in this analysis.
Second, I propose a structure for understanding how technologies affect


human equality. Third, I propose principlesincluding a consideration of
their effects on equalityfor setting limits on technological self-defence,
and illustrate their use by applying them to several forms of counter-
strikes under consideration in cyberspace.

I. Defining Self-Help, Technology, and Equality

A. Self-Help

1. A Definition of Self-Help

In law, self-help is a category of actions that individuals can legally
undertake without state assistance in order to protect their own legally-
recognized rights. Extra-judicial self-help remedies arise in numerous ar-
eas of the law, allowing people to use force in self-defence, in defence of
propertyincluding chattelsor in defence of third parties.1 Categories of
self-help also exist to permit people to trespass on property to abate nui-
sances, to retrieve property, and, in certain circumstances, to destroy the
property of others.2 It is necessary here to say a few words about the sepa-
rate parts of the proposed definition.
First, we are concerned in this context only with those actions under-

taken in self-help that would be illegal but for a specific exemption or
privilege such as, for example, self-defence or abatement of nuisance.3
There is a whole range of legal actions that individuals may undertake in
order to promote their own interests, such as using locks or building
fences on their own property. This range of clearly legal activity tends not
to be at issue in cases dealing with the legal limits on what may be done
by way of self-help. It is nevertheless useful to keep these additional
forms of legal activity in mind, as some such actions that are currently le-
gal may be made illegal or vice versa. This is important in cases where
the self-help activity involves a new form of technology. Emerging forms
of unregulated technologies routinely challenge our understanding of

1 John Baker reports that the first known acceptance of the defence of chattels as an ex-
cuse for battery was in 1500: JH Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History, 4th
ed (London: Butterworths, 2002) at 379, n 2, citing JH Baker, ed, The Reports of Sir
John Spelman (London: Selden Society, 1978) vol 2 at 315, n 16.

2 See Douglas Ivor Brandon et al, Self-Help: Extrajudicial Rights, Privileges and Reme-
dies in Contemporary American Society (1984) 37:4 Vand L Rev 845 (this comprehen-
sive report covers the various self-help remedies available in various areas of US law
including tort law, criminal law, commercial law, and landlord and tenant law); Richard
A Epstein, The Theory and Practice of Self-Help (2005) 1:1 Journal of Law, Economics
and Policy 1 at 15.

3 See ibid at 3.


what actions are legal or illegal in pursuit of self-interest, and what ac-
tions are privileged despite being illegal.

Second, an implicit part of the definition is that the interest pursued
by the individual must be a legitimate interest. The meaning of legiti-
mate interest is not clear, as this may be understood narrowly to mean
only legally-recognized rights, or it may extend more broadly to include
genuine interests that are not recognized as legal rights. One may have a
genuine interest in many objectives ranging from illegal interests (e.g., to
steal property), through a range of less clearly illegal interests (e.g., to ac-
cess information contrary to an arguably overreaching contractual term
proscribing it), to legal interests (e.g., to retrieve property that is being
wrongfully withheld).
An illustration of a situation in which a person may feel justified in
breaking the law to promote an interest that is not legally recognized is
the following: a company may impose particular terms of use on its web-
site to essentially make certain uses of information on the site illegal, or it
may create access restrictions on its website to avoid access by persons
from particular geographical locations (e.g., to avoid the application of cer-
tain laws governing permissible content).4 A person may wish to use that
information contrary to the contractual agreement or may wish to access
the information from the excluded location by hacking or misleading the
control system. The person who does so has no legal right to use that in-
formation. However, some people may intuitively feel that it is justifiable
to breach the contract and access the information because they regard
these contractual terms as illegitimate. What I am seeking by way of this
example is to shed light on whether self-help permits the pursuit of inter-
ests that are not legally-recognized rights. Despite the feeling that people
ought to be allowed to pursue their interests by avoiding over-reaching
contractual provisions, a court that is bound to apply contract law would
likely regard this pursuit as an unjustified breach of contract rather than
an instance of legitimate self-help. In sum, the interests that one can pur-
sue under the privileged cover of self-help must be ones own legally-
recognized rights or those of another person.5

4 See EBay Inc v Bidders Edge Inc, 100 F Supp (2d) 1058, 54 USPQ (2d) 1798 (ND Cal
2000) [Ebay] (the court enjoined Bidders Edge from gathering information from eBays
website contrary to the websites terms of use. This decision has been controversial due
to allegations that eBays attempt to restrict the use of publicly accessible information
was contrary to public policy).

5 The defence of third parties permits a person to use force to protect a third party. In
such a case the legally-recognized interest being protected is the third partys bodily in-


The definition is ambiguous with respect to whether a person who is
helping himself must act alone, or may act in concert with others. Richard
Epstein writes that although the word self-help usually evokes the image
of an individual acting alone to defend his own legal interests, there is
nothing in the idea of self-help that precludes an individual or a group
from acting in support of any individual or group that is subject to a
wrong.6 Although the dangers associated with self-help grow when people
act in groups, an individual alone may be too weak to defend himself. The
category of the defence of third parties contemplates that a person may
act on behalf of another, and so it seems that the law contemplates at
least some collective self-help action.

2. The Reasons For and Against Allowing Self-Help

Legal systems constrain the free use of force for good reasons.7 A soci-
ety in which violence may be used freely is one in which potential victims
must waste resources on defences. The free use of force also has a ten-
dency to spiral out of control, escalating into feuds as the members of de-
fensive alliances are drawn into disputes.8 A by-product of a legal system
that prevents violent self-help is the removal of some of the advantage
from those with superior strength, weapons, or social networks, and a step
toward a concept of uniform rights due to all individuals in a community.
The importance of ensuring that might does not make right was in-
cluded as a justification to suppress self-help in Blackstones Commentar-
ies on the Laws of England.9

6 See Epstein, supra note 2 at 3.
7 Brandon et al write that [t]he rationale for this concern [i.e., with self-help] remains
unchanged since medieval times; self-help frequently leads to breaches of the peace, vio-
lence, and inequities (supra note 2 at 853).

8 See Sir William Holdsworth, A History of English Law, 4th ed (London: Methuen & Co,
1966), vol 2 at 43; AKR Kiralfy, ed, Potters Historical Introduction to English Law and
Its Institutions, 4th ed (London: Sweet & Maxwell, 1958) at 348.

9 Sir William Blackstone, 3d ed by Thomas M Cooley (Chicago: Callaghan & Co, 1884) vol

2 at 4:

[T]he public peace is a superior consideration to any one mans private prop-
erty; and … if individuals were once allowed to use private force as a remedy
for private injuries, all social justice must cease, the strong would give law to
the weak, and every man would revert to a state of nature; for these reasons
it is provided, that this natural right … shall never be exerted, where such
exertion must occasion strife and bodily contention, or endanger the peace of

See also Milton H Aronson, Self-Help in the Collection of Debts as a Defense to Crimi-
nal Prosecution (1938) 24:1 Wash ULQ 117 at 117; Neal Katyal, Community Self-
Help (2005) 1:1 Journal of Law, Economics and Policy 33 at 37.


It seems unlikely that this egalitarian impulse was the prime motiva-
tion to suppress self-help in early legal systems. Still, on the one hand
and this point is important for the following discussion on equalityby
suppressing self-help the law may, to some extent, neutralize the effects
of an unequal distribution of strength between people with respect to the
resolution of legal disputes. But on the other hand, whether or not the
suppression of self-help has this egalitarian effect depends upon the unre-
alistic assumption that all parties have equal access to the states support
in vindicating their rights.10 If access to the law is so expensive that many
cannot pursue their legal rights in that way, rules that restrict self-help
might actually harm those who could more cheaply and effectively protect
their own interests themselves.

The inclusion of technological means of engaging in self-help adds an-
other reason to limit self-help. Technology often increases the potential
destructiveness of the individual, which increases the risk that the meth-
ods employed in self-help will be excessive, or that they will harm third
parties. The risks of severe damage to the target and bystanders are in-
creased by using the gun rather than the fist, for example.
Arrayed against these reasons to suppress self-help are various rea-
sons to permit it in some cases. Holdsworth observed that, as a historical
matter, it was never possible to fully repress self-help, and he suggested it
would be undesirable to do so.11 It may be more efficient to allow someone
to help himself to his rights than to require the state to intervene judi-
cially in every dispute.12 Another possible advantage of self-help in some
cases is that the parties involved bear the costs of resolving their own dis-
putes rather than having the public subsidize them.13
Apart from an efficiency argument, there is also an effectiveness ar-
gument. The judicial process may be inadequate because it is too slow or

10 The assumption is unrealistic given the importance of wealth or social status, or both in

accessing justice.

11 Holdsworth, supra note 8 at 100, citing Sir Frederick Pollock & Frederic William Mait-
land, History of English Law: Before the Time of Edward I, vol 2 (Cambridge: Cam-
bridge University Press, 1895) at 572.
12 See Holdsworth, supra note 8 at 100:

But, though early law can thus set conditions for the exercise of the right of
self-help, no body of law can altogether repress itnor, if it was able, would
it be desirable to do so. If the individual can be allowed to help himself qui-
etly to his rights without disturbing the general public, if as a rule the indi-
vidual does not try to help himself unless he has right on his side, it will save
time and trouble if the individual is allowed to act.

13 See Celia R Taylor, Self-Help in Contract Law: An Exploration and Proposal (1998)

33:4 Wake Forest L Rev 839 at 848.


offers unsuitable remedies.14 Self-defence must be permitted because the
victim who is threatened with a violent attack cannot wait for the state to
intervene.15 Situations where the state could be effective but has inade-
quate resources and so does not offer adequate remedies are more difficult
to assess. Should people be allowed to resort to self-help in these cases?
Situations of this type are common in cyberspace.16 One may argue that a
system that suppresses self-help, but does not provide adequate state pro-
tection of legal rights, invites violations of those rights since there is no
credible deterrent when victims cannot engage in self-help.17
Given these competing reasons for and against self-help, the law has
taken a fairly loosely defined position toward self-helpcentred on the
concepts of necessity, reasonableness, and proportionality.18 The following
points can be extracted from a review of the various rules on self-help:19

Only certain legal interests can be defended using force. These in-
clude the protection of property and the person against physical
interference, and the protection of the use and enjoyment of prop-

14 Brandon et al note that various self-help remedies have persisted over the years, usu-
ally where the judicial remedies are inadequate and the threat of a self-help remedy to
… law and order is minimal (supra note 2 at 853).

15 See Blackstone, supra note 9 at 2-3:

But as there are certain injuries of such a nature, that some of them furnish
and others require a more speedy remedy than can be had in the ordinary
forms of justice, there is allowed in those cases an extrajudicial, or
eccentrical kind of remedy

It considers that the future process of law is by no means an adequate rem-
edy for injuries accompanied with force; since it is impossible to say to what
wanton lengths of rapine or cruelty outrages of this sort might be carried,
unless it were permitted a man immediately to oppose one violence with an-

16 For example, should banks be allowed to attack phishing websites to take them down?
Phishing websites pose a continual problem because they simply reappear elsewhere
online when they are successfully taken down. If the state has bigger problems to ad-
dress, should private parties be allowed to use self-help against such problems in cyber-

17 Epstein, supra note 2 at 29: To ask an innocent party … to refrain from the use of force
when threatened with serious bodily harm or the substantial loss of property is to de-
mand too much, and to increase the chances of such aggression.

18 Ibid at 28 (noting that self-help is more likely to be tolerated where there is a back-up

procedure available to contest the legality of self-help action).

19 Brandon et al, supra note 2; Allen M Linden & Bruce Feldthusen, Canadian Tort Law,
8th ed (Markham, Ont: LexisNexis Canada, 2006); Dan B Dobbs, The Law of Torts, vol
1 (St. Paul, Minn: West Group, 2001).


erty against unreasonable interference.20 The self-help categories
of self-defence, the defence of third parties and the defence of
property are available to defend against physical interference with
the person and with property. Abatement of nuisance is available
to deal with unreasonable interferences with the use and enjoy-
ment of property.

There must be no acceptable alternative response to the threat

other than the use of force.21

The degree of force used must be reasonable and may not be

greater than is reasonably necessary to meet the threat.22

The degree of force used must be proportional to the threat. For
example, it is unacceptable to use deadly force to protect property,
and compensation may be due for personal injuries caused while
protecting property interests.23

There are various rules applicable to these self-help remedies that
are designed to avoid mistakes and unnecessary violence: In some
cases, a warning or request to desist must be given before resort to
the use of force. In other cases, it is necessary to pay compensation
where a mistake is made.24 Still other rules are designed to try to
limit harm to bystanders, including the rule that compensation
must be paid where harm is inflicted negligently by a party acting
in self-defence.

20 The cases on self-help usually deal with real-world physical interference. However, in
other cases dealing with cyberspace, the courts have accepted that trespass to chattels
may be committed electronically over the internet. See e.g. Ebay, supra note 4. This
suggests that at least some of the legal principles designed for the physical world will be
transposed into cyberspace. While some courts have accepted that physical property
such as servers might be subject to electronic forms of trespass, it is less clear whether
intangible property such as intellectual property or information can be trespassed upon,
let alone whether it is a type of property that may be defended using force.

21 See Restatement of the Law (Second) Torts 63 (1965) [Restatement] (see comments, k, l,

m); Brandon et al, supra note 2.

22 See Restatement, supra note 26 70.
23 See Brandon et al, supra note 2 at 862, 870; Restatement, supra note 21 75; Dobbs, su-
pra note 19 at 170 (even if one is absolved of liability toward ones attacker for actions
in self-defence, one may still be liable in negligence if a bystander is harmed); Linden &
Feldthusen, supra note 19 at 89.

24 See Brandon et al, supra note 2 at 861, 864.


B. A Definition of Technology and Technological Self-Help
The definition of technology is not settled. Some define the scope of

the term broadly to include all tangible and intangible tools and tech-
niques. A narrow definition would regard technology as limited to the
physical artifacts created and used by humans as tools to achieve their ob-
jectives.25 Jacques Ellul has chosen a broader definition that he labels
technique, in which he includes any method adopted by humans to
achieve a goal more efficiently in any field of human activity.26 This latter
definition would include not only physical artifacts, but also methods and
organizational structures, among other things. Don Ihde adopts an inter-
mediate ground, requiring that technology include a material component,
but extends his definition to the methods or techniques that use the mate-
rial artifact.27

For the purposes of my inquiry into technological self-help, I will adopt
Elluls broader definition for two reasons. First, existing case law on self-
help makes it clear that the adoption of non-material techniques such as
martial arts is relevant to the courts reasoning.28 As a result, the use of
techniques, and not only material objects like guns, has already been
proven relevant to the analysis in this context. Second, there is some un-
certainty in cyberspaceand in the law in generalon how to understand
non-material forms of property, such as data or intellectual property.
There is also some debate over how to characterize novel forms of inter-
ference and nuisance over the Internet.29 The courts, at least in the
United States, have chosen to regard electronic communications over the
Internet as capable of falling within the scope of trespass to chattels; a
category that was formerly understood to involve a physicalpresumably
non-electronicform of interference.30 Excluding non-material techniques

25 See Stephen J Kline, What Is Technology? (1985) 5:3 Bulletin of Science, Technology
& Society 215; Frederick Ferr, Philosophy of Technology (Athens, GA: University of
Georgia Press, 1995) at 14-29.

26 Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, translated by John Wilkinson (New York:

Vintage Books, 1964) at xxv.

27 Don Ihde, Philosophy of Technology: An Introduction (New York: Paragon House, 1993)

at 47.

28 For example, the Saskatchewan Court of Queens Bench pronounced on the use of ka-
rate in defence of another. See Cachay v Nemeth (1972), 28 DLR (3d), 603 (Sask QB)
[Cachay] (the court held that [t]he blow, struck as it was by one who had been trained
in Karate … was out of proportion to the apparent urgency or requirement of the situa-
tion at para 7).

29 See Dan L Burk, The Trouble With Trespass (2000) 4:1 J Small & Emerging Bus L
27. For a useful summary of the debate as reflected in the case law and scholarly com-
mentary, see Guy Lastowka, Decoding Cyberproperty (2007) 40:1 Ind LR 23.

30 See Ebay, supra note 4.


from technological self-defence thus fails to reflect current legal practice
as well as more novel and uncertain areas of self-defence and defence of
property, such as cyberspace.
Apart from these reasons, it is my view that many important tools
need not involve physical artifacts (e.g., languages, mental heuristics,
recipes, etc.), and that sometimes where there is a physical artifact, the
artifact is really secondary to the central tool. For example, the physical
manifestation of a software program is essentially irrelevant. It does not
matter, to an understanding of the technological aspect of the software,
whether it resides on a USB key or a CD. It is true that while software is
operating, it does so through various physical machines, and those ma-
chines become an important part of understanding the effects of the com-
bined artifact and technique.
Under the broader definition the legal system itself, with its language,
rules, institutions, and artifacts, is a type of social technology: It is a tool
that different actors use for different purposes. It is a system that indi-
vidualsby invoking the state apparatus to defend and enforce rights
may use to try to pursue their legal rights. Technological self-help can
thus be understood as the use of tools other than the legal system to pur-
sue legal rights. Technological self-help nonetheless remains part of the
legal system since self-help is simply a set of legal rules defining a cate-
gory of actions that a person can legally undertake without state assis-
tance in order to protect his own legally-recognized rights.

C. A Definition of Equality

Equality is a central component of the main normative theories of so-
cial arrangement, even if the concept of equality varies from theory to
theory.31 For instance, one theorys demand for equality in one dimension
may conflict with anothers demand for equality in another. Nevertheless,
equalityin some dimensionremains a central requirement since a jus-
tifiable theory of social arrangements must be acceptable from the per-
spectives of all affected.32
Various forking points present themselves when one tries to choose a
concept of equality. First, it is necessary to choose the dimensions in
which equality will matter most. By definition, when people are equal
they continue to differ in some dimensions, otherwise equality would col-

31 See Amartya Sen, Inequality Reexamined (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University

Press, 1992) 12.
32 See ibid at 17-18.


lapse into identity.33 The challenge lies in determining which dimensions
ought to be the same in order that people can be said to be equal, and
which dimensions may remain different. People may differ in various di-
mensions,34 although they are likely to care only about valuable variables
such as resources, well-being, or rightslike liberty.35 The objective in
this paper is to consider the effects of rules regarding technological self-
help on equality. In order to make the inquiry more manageable, I will
consider the way in which technologies equalize resources, since ones re-
source endowment will have a direct effect on the ability to pursue ones
legal interests. I take resources to include both external and internal re-
sources, since technologies are available to affect both. External resources
include factors such as wealth, the characteristics of the surrounding
natural environment, and the social and cultural resources provided by
the surrounding community. Internal resources are internal or personal
characteristics, such as age, sex, personality, and physical or mental abili-
Another choice to be made is whether we are concerned with equality
of outcome or equality of opportunity. I think that the proper way to un-
derstand the concern at the heart of the question of whether technological
self-help of one kind or another should be permitted is that there should
be equal opportunity to pursue ones legal rights. On the one hand, a the-
ory of equality that suggests that equality of opportunity is the central ob-
jective is open to criticism. It could, for example, justify highly unequal
outcomes with respect to the actual protection of legal rights, as factors
such as luck and effort lead to different results for different people. On the
other hand, the pursuit of equality of outcome leaves no room for personal

33 See Stefan Gosepath, Equality Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1 December

2009), Edward N Zalta, ed, online: at para 1.

34 See Sen, supra note 31 at 19-21. Sen writes that [l]iberties, rights, utilities, incomes,
resources, primary goods, need-fulfilments, etc., provide different ways of seeing the re-
spective lives of different people, and each of the perspectives leads to a corresponding
view of equality (ibid at 25).

35 See Joseph Raz, On the Value of Distributional Equality, in Stephen de Wijze, Mat-
thew H Kramer & Ian Carter, eds, Hillel Steiner and the Anatomy of Justice (New York:
Routeledge, 2009) 22 at 25, n 7:

Egalitarians are by necessity pluralists about value. According to them there
is value only in the distribution of something which is in itself of (some) in-
trinsic value, that is something whose value is independent of equality … The
beginning of the proof [of this] is to note that there is no value in the equal
distribution of something which is itself neither good nor bad, like the num-
ber of hairs to be found on ones shirts at any given time. To be plausible at
all the value of equality must relate to the distribution of items like food, op-
portunities for valuable activities, freedom, and other things of value inde-
pendently of their distribution.


responsibility, such that society would have to continually channel more
resources to those who squander their resources and opportunities.36 By
including the concept of internal resources, above (which include talent
and personality, as well as all the contextual factors like social oppression
or social support that may affect a persons ability to actively pursue op-
portunities), I hope to address the critique that equality of opportunity ig-
nores the problem of unequal starting points with regard to factors re-
lated to personal responsibility.37

II. The Relationship Between Technology and Equality

This article is focused on understanding when a technology should be
legally permissible for use in self-help, and on proposing that a technol-
ogys effects on equality be considered in making that decision. Therefore,
it is necessary to explain further how we might understand the effects of
technology on equality.

The most familiar story about the relationship between technology
and equality is neatly summarized by the term the Digital Divide. The
term, referring to the unequal global pattern of internet access, expresses
the idea that technologies are usually beneficial to people, and so inequal-
ity may develop between those who have access to those benefits and
those who do not. This story is accurate, since the issue of access to bene-
ficial technologies is an omnipresent feature of the relationship between
equality and technology. However, the relationship between equality and
technology is more complex than this, as discussed later in this section.
A complete theory of equality needs to explain whether equality
should be promoted only among human beings or among a larger set
including other living beings. Science and technology complicate this pic-
ture by, for example, revealing the genomic similarity between humans
and other animals, as well as making it possible to combine human and
animal genes.38 A complete theory of equality must also deal with the
problem of time: Are humans of all ages to be treated equally? Is the
equality of present and future generations to be a concern? Technologies
are highly relevant to equality among humans over time. Not only are we
increasingly capable of manipulating the genetics of future generations of

36 See Richard J Arneson, Equality in Robert L Simon, ed, The Blackwell Guide to Social

and Political Philosophy (Malden, Mass: Blackwell, 2002) 85 at 94.

37 See ibid at 98.
38 See Robert H Waterston et al, Initial Sequencing and Comparative Analysis of the
Mouse Genome (2002) 420:6915 Nature 520. The fact that it is technologically possible
to create human-animal chimeras led to a legal response in Canada. See Assisted Hu-
man Reproduction Act, SC 2004, c 2, s 5(1)(i).


humans, but our technologies are also deeply implicated in the environ-
mental modifications that present generations will leave for future gen-
erations. These themes are fascinating, and they may be relevant to self-
help, particularly if inheritable genetic self-modification can be under-
stood as a form of self-help. However, I will set aside the problems of time
and the equality of present and future generations to consider the effects
of technology on the equality between current human beings.

There is a difficulty in making pronouncements about the general ef-
fects of technology on equalityalthough one can fairly confidently say
that it is generally true that inequality of access to technology (mostly
beneficial in some way) undermines equality. However, it is still impor-
tant to look at technologies individually, since they differ in their effects
on human equality. Some technologies increase equality, some diminish
equality, and some do both. Another useful dimension to consider in the
study of the limits on permissible self-help is whether or notapart from
its relationship with equalitythe technology provides a net benefit at
the social level. In other words, there may be some technologies that are,
in the aggregate, beneficial to society even if they decrease equality, or
other technologies that are, in the aggregate, harmful even if they in-
crease equality. In these cases, when deciding legal policy, it is necessary
to face the difficult decision of which values should be given pre-eminence.
Will we purchase more equality at the expense of some other value?

The following chart explains the relationship between technology and
equality through specific examples. This chart is an over-simplification of
the real relationship between technology and equality, although I do think
it identifies some of the complexity and goes further than the story of the
Digital Divide in explaining the relationship.






Example: The discovery of insu-
lin and methods to produce it.

Insulin is of use primarily to
diabetics and permits them to
achieve improved health. Its use
partly closes a health gap be-
and non-


Example: The invention of the
Internet and the Digital Di-

The Internet permits those who
enjoy access to benefit from im-
proved access to information and
communication, while
without access remain in the
same position as before.

Example: The handgun.39

Example: The sport utility
vehicle (SUV).

The nineteenth-century name
for the Colt handgun was the
Equalizer, due to its ability to
level the field in a fight between
opponents of unequal strength.
At the same time, the increased
use of the handgun in disputes
between opponents has raised
the risks of injury for bystand-

By switching to an SUV from a
car, the occupants of an SUV
lower their risk of fatality in a
crash with a car, while raising
the risk for the occupants of the
car and other users of the road.
In fact the increase in risks to
others is greater than the de-
crease in risk for the SUV
driverproducing a negative
net effect overall.40

39 The claim that guns increase the rate of death and injury in a population is controver-
sial; see e.g. Janet Weiner et al, Reducing Firearm Violence: A Research Agenda
(2007) 13:2 Injury Prevention 80. However, if the claim is true, then the handgun would
provide an example of a type of technology that canto some degreeneutralize a dis-
parity in physical strength between opponents, while at the same time raising risks to
others (e.g., through accidents).

40 I draw this example from Frank Pasquales insightful discussion of the interesting work

of Michelle White:

[F]or each fatal crash involving occupants of their own vehicles that drivers
avoid by choosing light trucks, more than four additional fatal crashes occur
involving car occupants, pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists. In other
words, safety gains for those driving light trucks come at an extremely high
cost to others (Michelle J White, The Arms Race on American Roads: The
Effect of Sport Utility Vehicles and Pickup Trucks on Traffic Safety (2004)
47:2 J L & Econ 333 cited in Frank Pasquale, Technology, Competition, and
Values (2007) 8:2 Minn J L Sci & Tech 607 at 608).


There are four important caveats to this conceptual structure that I
can see, doubtless there are more. First, the equality that matters to peo-
ple is a multi-faceted entity (e.g., happiness, welfare, power, and wealth),
and the achievement of equality in the one or two dimensions that an in-
dividual technology may enable may be relatively unimportant. Clearly,
one cannot declare the weak and strong equal once the weak have hand-
guns. This is not just because the handgun is only useful in somebut not
allcircumstances where strength is called for, but because equality in
strength is not the only or even the most important dimension in which
people may wish to be equal.

Second, regardless of whether or not a technology is able to increase
equality in a given dimension such as strength, the question of access to
the technology will still remain. In other words, the mere existence of a
technology that could equalize a disadvantage is not useful in itself; it ac-
complishes equalization only if it is reasonably affordable and accessible
to those who are disadvantaged. Given the strong correlation between
vulnerability, ill health, lower levels of education, and wealth, the equaliz-
ing effects of technologies may in many instances be theoretical.

Third, it is also possible that one given technology may increase equal-
ity in one dimension while simultaneously decreasing it in another di-
mension, as between two people. For example, to build on the SUV exam-
ple above, larger vehicles are useful for people with physical disabilities,
both in terms of embarking and disembarking as well as in terms of
transporting wheelchairs or other equipment. However, motorists in lar-
ger vehicles impose higher accident risks on motorists in smaller vehicles.
In this case the larger vehicle simultaneously increases equality in mobil-
ity while decreasing equality in terms of the risk of fatal accidents.41

Fourth, before celebrating the equalizing effects of a technology, it is
necessary first to ask what is being equalized. If a disadvantaged group is
offered a technological means to fix a purely socially-constructed disad-
vantage, it is unclear that such an opportunity would promote equality.
Instead, it tends to reinforce the arbitrary view that a given characteristic
is undesirable and ought to be fixed. Consider, for example, hymeno-
plasty, the so-called virginity restoration surgery.42 On the one hand, it
promotes female equality by freeing women from the effects of a sexual

41 Many thanks to the attendees of the Notre Dame Law School Speakers Series, at which
I spoke in the winter of 2009, for suggesting the category of technologies that simulta-
neously increase and decrease equality in different dimensions.

42 See William Saletan, Sex, Lies, and Virginity Restoration, Slate (11 June 2008),

online: .


double standard that requires female but not male virginity.43 On the
other hand, it reinforces the double standard for other women who must
also then comply with the standard or obtain the surgery.44
Numerous other technologies play the paradoxical role of strengthen-
ing a socially-constructed discriminatory standard at the same time as
they enable those disadvantaged by that standard to elude its effects. An-
other example comes from the government-approved use of human
growth hormone, not for those with a hormone deficiency, but for healthy
children whose projected adult height would place them in the lowest per-
centile of height among adults.45 In seeking to avoid the social stigma at-
tached to shortness and to satisfy the social expectation of height, con-
sumers of this hormone maintain the socially-constructed disadvantage
and also increase pressure on the remaining short people to conform.

To conclude with the fourth point, if all a technology does is to permit
a disadvantaged group to remedy a purely socially-constructed disadvan-
tage then very careful thought should be given to whether this is a good or
bad thing. It is difficult to shift these social constructions, and individuals
may prefer to use the technology to fix the defect rather than hold out
until society changes. Still, if a disadvantage is not purely socially con-
structed, and can legitimately be viewed as a disadvantage impeding the
fullest possible human fulfillment, then I think we may look at the tech-
nology as potentially positive in promoting equality.

Turning to the question of how the relationship between technology
and equality influences technological self-help, it is clear that if a person
starts from a position of superior strength and still employs a technology
that further increases the disparity, this will not be permissible. For ex-
ample, a stronger person should not need to use a knife or a gun to defend
against an attack by a weaker person. The court is likely to view the use
of a weapon in such cases as an unreasonable or unnecessary use of force.
Put another way, the adoption of a technology that increases inequality is
unlikely to and ought not to be viewed favourably. But, the use of a tech-
nology that helps to level the playing field against a stronger attacker is
more likely to be acceptable. Whether a technology that promotes equality
in such circumstances will be acceptable for use in self-help will depend
upon whether it imposes a negative net social effect, such as through the
escalation of violence or harm to bystanders.

43 See ibid.
44 See Clare Chambers, Autonomy and Equality in Cultural Perspective: Response to

Sawitri Saharso (2004) 5:3 Feminist Theory 329.

45 See Michael J Sandel, The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engi-

neering (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press, 2007) at 16-19.


III. Principles for Technological Self-Help

A. Proposed Principles for Technological Self-Help

The law tends to permit self-help where the law is either ineffective or
inefficient in protecting a set of legal interests that are viewed as suffi-
ciently important for society to run the risks of allowing self-help. Over
time, the law has devised a series of principles to limit the scope of per-
missible self-help. The general principles were discussed above in the sec-
tion on self-help, and pertain to the types of legal interests that can be de-
fended using force, the requirement that there be no acceptable alterna-
tive response, and the requirement that the degree of force used be both
reasonably necessary and proportional to the threat. In addition, rules re-
garding warnings, requests to desist, and compensation also serve to
avoid mistakes and to limit unnecessary violence. In reaching and apply-
ing these principles, courts have not made technology or equality the ex-
plicit focus of this analysis, although both are implicit considerations in
some cases.
With respect to technology, many actions taken in self-help employ
some type of technology. As defined in this article, a technology is a tool or
method (ranging from the very simple, or nearly invisible, to the novel
and startling) that is deliberately used to achieve a goal. Apart from cases
involving fist fights, other attempts at self-help will often employ a tech-
nology of some sort. Therefore it has been necessaryeven if only implic-
itlyto consider the appropriate limits on technological self-help. For ex-
ample, courts have had to rule on whether to permit self-defence using
various types of physical artifacts (e.g., a knife)46 or methods (e.g., ka-
As for human equality, the rules on self-help do not explicitly mention
this as a factor in the analysis. However, inequality is relevant at several
steps of the analysis. In particular, inequality in strength and power is
relevant to determining whether it is reasonable to perceive a threat and
whether the degree of force used in self-defence is reasonable. Courts al-
ready implicitly consider disparity in strength between the parties when
they assess whether the use of a given weapon was disproportionately vio-
lent or not. For example, a stronger person is not justified in exerting his
full strength against a weaker one.48 However, a weaker person is justi-

46 See R v BEN (2000), 190 Sask R 109 (Sask Prov Ct) (the court accepted the use of a

knife in self-defence).

47 See Cachay, supra note 28.
48 See Johnson v Erickson, [1941] 2 WWR 524, [1941] 3 DLR 651, cited in Linden & Feld-

thusen, supra note 19 at 89.


fied in using a weapon against a stronger person where it is reasonably
believed to be necessary.49 The judicial attention to the psychological ef-
fects of battered woman syndrome, for example, in assessing the reason-
ableness of a womans actions also illustrates the relevance of power and
strength imbalances in determining the boundaries of self-help.50 These
cases do not tend to declare the use of a particular weapon to be generally
justified or not. Instead, they consider the inequality between the parties
when determining whether the use of a weapon is reasonable in those cir-
cumstances, given that inequality in strength. This seems to be a reason-
able approach because a judicial decision to outlaw resort to a given
weapon in all cases would essentially preserve and ratify the existing un-
equal distribution of strength between the two people.

In this paper, I am suggesting that one factor that ought to be more
explicitly considered when determining whether resort to a particular
technology for self-help is acceptable is the level of inequality between the
parties and the effect of the technology on that equality. I believe it is
worthwhile to consider this more systematically and explicitly than has
been the case where courts have dealt with individual instances of violent
self-defence by a weaker party against a stronger attacker because there
are other forms of inequality that may be relevant in different contexts.
As discussed further below, inequalities in physical strength are not the
operative inequalities in cyberspace, and it is worthwhile asking what
problematic inequalities may exist in cyberspace that would benefit from
technological amelioration.
At the same time, when choosing principles for technological self-help,
it is important to pay attention to the ways in which technological evolu-
tion may upset the balance struck by the existing rules on self-help.
Technological development may raise the risks associated with self-help.
As more elaborate and destructive weapons are adopted, the risk of dis-
proportional damage and harm to bystanders can increase, although this
is not invariably true. To the extent that technological development per-
mits more proportionate responses and more accurate targeting, so as to
avoid innocent bystanders, it may lower the risks associated with self-
help. As a result, whether or not a given technological tool should be per-
mitted for use in self-help should be assessed according to the tools char-

49 See e.g. R v Chase, [1997] NSJ No 141 (NSSC) (defendant was justified in striking his
bigger and more powerful uncle in the head with a baseball bat. The court noted that
the defendant was younger and slight in build, and that the uncle was a bouncer who
studied martial arts and lifted weights).

50 See e.g. R v Malott, [1998] 1 SCR 123 at paras 18-21, 155 DLR (4th) 513.


To the extent that technological self-help is permitted there is an in-
centive to engage in technological arms racing. It is unclear whether these
arms races are wasteful or productive, given that they may spur useful
innovation.51 However, it may sometimes be thought good policy to declare
a winner of the arms race by law in order to stop a wasteful race. Douglas
Lichtman points to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act52 as an attempt
to stop the arms race between copyright owners seeking to use technologi-
cal protections against copying and those seeking to break the protec-
tions.53 The development of peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing networks was
an arms race in which

copyright holders us[ed] mislabeled decoy files to pollute the new
networks, while network designers worked to build reputation in-
formation into their architecture such that a user tricked by a decoy
file could warn other users not to download that false file or even in-
teract with the trickster who introduced it.54

It is possible that some of this technological competition has produced
useful innovation with respect to reputation and trust systems. Whether
or not a given arms race is wasteful or productive will likely vary accord-
ing to the specific technology and context.

The development of technologies that permit individuals to avoid or
prevent harm through self-help provides the state with a reason to with-
draw from addressing the harms itself. Writing about the constitutional-
ity of government regulation of online speech, Tom Bell makes the argu-
ment that [t]he mere possibility that user-based Internet screening soft-
ware would soon be widely available was relevant to our rejection of an
overbroad restriction of indecent cyberspeech.55 This was because the ex-
istence of technological solutions showed either that the state did not have
a compelling need to restrict speech or that there were less restrictive
means for the state to achieve its compelling objectives.56 Bell writes that
the existence of cost-effective technological solutions to a problem should
militate against state intervention.57 While this seems like good advice,

51 See Douglas Lichtman, How the Law Responds to Self-Help (2005) 1:1 Journal of

Law, Economics and Policy 215 at 236.

52 Pub L No 105-304, 112 Stat 2860 (1998).
53 Lichtman, supra note 51 at 232.
54 Ibid at 233 [footnotes omitted].
55 United States v Playboy Entertainment Group, 529 US 803 at 814, 146 L Ed 2(d) 865
(2000), cited in Tom W Bell, Free Speech, Strict Scrutiny, and Self-Help: How Technol-
ogy Upgrades Constitutional Jurisprudence (2003) 87:3 Minn L Rev 743 at 746, n 15.
See also Lichtman, supra note 51 at 216-17.

56 Bell, supra note 55 at 746.
57 Ibid at 749.


given resource constraints and all of the other things the state could be
doing, it is important to scrutinize the effects of such a tendency. If the
technological solution is not easily available or usable by all, there will
remain a group that cannot protect itself. In addition, Bells example in-
volves the application of a technological solution that is lawful and low
risk, whereas other technological solutions enabling individuals to pre-
vent or avoid harms might be less benign. In those cases, state law en-
forcement may be a preferable way to deal with the harm.

In sum, the principles for technological self-help should build on the
familiar rules of self-help, but they should also take into consideration the
ways in which the concerns at the heart of those rules are affected by
technologies. In addition, the concern with equalityalready latent
within the rules of self-helpshould be understood in a broader way that
permits it to help with setting appropriate rules for self-help activities in
novel areas such as cyberspace. The proposed modifications and additions
to the familiar rules are the following:

Only certain legal interests can be defended using force. The law
clearly accepts the protection of property and of the person from
physical interference, and the abatement of nuisances.
As technological change alters society and the kinds of harm
that affect people, we may need to understand these concepts dif-
ferently. For example, the increasing collection of personal infor-
mation renders individuals vulnerable to its misuse. The law
should contemplate the possibility that defence of the person
might extend to self-defence against invasions of privacy, and the
collection and misuse of personal information. As another exam-
ple, the importance of information suggests that data perhaps
ought to be understood as property, so that interference with
stored data (e.g., corruption of data through hacking or malware)
could be met with self-help in the form of abatement of nuisance
or defence of property. Similarly, interferences through electronic
means may now be sufficiently harmful to justify a self-help re-
sponse even if prior case law mostly dealt with physical tres-

To the extent that the technologys use is to be permitted, rules
regarding bystander compensation should be strengthened.
Though the increased destructiveness of a new technology mili-
tates against permitting its use in self-help due to the increased

58 Although trespass to chattels traditionally dealt with physical interferences, some more
recent US cases have treated electronic interferences as a form of trespass to chattels:
see e.g. Ebay, supra note 4.


risk of harm to bystanders, the increased specificity of a technol-
ogy (i.e., better targeting) militates in favour of permitting its use
in self-help since it reduces the risk of harm to bystanders.

Concerns regarding fuelling an arms race by permitting the use of
a technology in self-help must be balanced against the possibly
beneficial effects of innovation that results from the arms race.

Technologies that decrease inequality should be permissible when
used in self-help by disadvantaged persons, even if their use by
others would be unacceptable because they would be considered
disproportionate. An example here is the judicial acceptance of re-
sort to a handgun by a physically weaker person in defence
against a stronger person.
However, as technological evolution continues to shift the na-
ture of human interaction and competition, and the nature of the
harms that people may cause to each other, it is necessary to con-
sider inequality in other dimensions than physical strength. As
discussed below, the forms of interaction and types of harms that
may be caused over the Internet are different from the standard
example of a physical fight: inequality may consist not in physical
strength but in bandwidth. Should technological responses that
amplify the offensive ability of a defender be permissible?

B. Some Forms of Self-Help in Cyberspace

There are many cyberspace examples of disagreement over the proper
limits of self-help. Cyberspace provides a particularly rich context within
which to consider self-help because law enforcement has tended to be inef-
fective in combating various kinds of Internet-borne harms. It is challeng-
ing for law enforcement authorities to respond to these harms as they of-
ten demand a high degree of technical expertise of the police, and may
also involve multiple jurisdictions. In addition, with the exception of child
pornography, these harms tend to involve financial loss rather than
physical violence, and so may be viewed as less deserving of the invest-
ment of law enforcement resources.

The CSI Computer Crime & Security Survey (CSI report), now in its
thirteenth year, reports that in 2008 only twenty-seven per cent of re-
spondents reported cyber attacks to law enforcement.59 About half of the
respondents stated that they [d]id not believe that law enforcement could

59 Robert Richardson, CSI Computer Crime & Security Survey: The Latest Results from
the Longest-Running Project of its Kind (CSI, 2008) at 22, online: Computer Security In-
stitute .


help in the matter.60 The CSI report states that this doesnt say good
things about general perceptions of the capability of law enforcement
agencies to deal with cybercrime.61
As a result, individuals and organizations are, to a considerable ex-
tent, left to look after their own interests rather than being able to depend
upon state intervention. Indeed, a large security service sector has devel-
oped to offer privatized protection for a fee. These services largely center
on defensive strategies, but the question of whether it is permissible to
use offensive measures against these harms resurfaces repeatedly. In
some cases, the aggressive measures are undertaken by the victim him-
self, by a third party who has been hired to protect the victim, or by so-
called cyber-vigilantes who act on their own initiative.

The proper limits of self-help in cyberspace are currently unsettled.
There is no consensus on whether it is acceptable to hack back against
someone who is attacking your computer, or whether it is acceptable to
disable a computer or network that is infringing your copyright, traffick-
ing in stolen information, circulating malicious code, or trying to phish
your customers.

In the following sections, I will briefly describe some of these debates,
before going on to consider how the proposed self-help principles might
apply to some of these cases.

1. Denial of Service Attacks

A denial of service (DoS) attack refers to the act of sending an over-
whelming amount of Internet traffic to a target so that the target is dis-
abled and prevented from undertaking normal communications. Some-
times the objective is not to completely disable a site, but instead to slow
normal communicationsa practice known as bandwidth hogging.
These attacks are usually launched simultaneously from many computers
in a distributed denial of service attack (DDoS). The deliberate launch of a
DoS attack is a crime in numerous countries including Canada, the
United Kingdom, and the United States.62 Nonetheless, DoS or its more

60 Ibid at 23.
61 Ibid.
62 See Criminal Code, RSC 1985, c C-46, s 430(1.1); Computer Misuse Act 1990 (UK), c 18,
s 3; Crimes and Criminal Procedure, 18 USC 1030(a)(5)(A) (2008). See also Scott
Effringham, ed, Prosecuting Computer Crimes (Computer Crime and Intellectual Prop-
erty Division Section, Criminal Division Office of Legal Education Executive Office for
United States Legal Attorneys, 2007), online: .


moderate version bandwidth hogging have, on occasion, been used as a
form of self-help.

In early 2000, Conxion Inc., which hosted the server of the World
Trade Organization (WTO), responded to an attack launched by the Elec-
trohippies by redirecting the attack back to the E-hippies server.63

Several attempts to deal with spam using DoS or bandwidth hogging
have also been made. In 2004, Lycos launched an anti-spam campaign
that offered its users a screensaver program that would use idle comput-
ing power to repeatedly contact spammers websites.64 The screensaver
apparently had some success against spammers, taking several spam
websites offline, although Lycos maintained that it was not engaged in
DoS, but was just slowing bandwidth to increase the cost of spamming.65
Nonetheless, spammers quickly responded, attacking the site offering the
screensaver and circulating malware masquerading as the screensaver.66
Various vampire programs, such as SpamVampire and LadVampire,
were also programs that would repeatedly re-load a spammers website or
the website of a company being advertised through spam.67

The bandwidth hogging technique has been used against sites en-
gaged in online fraud.68 Certain forms of online fraud, such as phishing or
advance fee fraud (also known as 419 fraud), make use of false financial

63 See Vikas Jayaswal, William Yurcik & David Doss, Internet Hack Back: Counter At-
tacks as Self-Defense or Vigilantism? (Paper delivered at the International Symposium
on Technology and Society, Raleigh, NC, 6 June 2002), IEEE at 381, online:
; Pia Landergren,
Hacker Vigilantes Strike Back, CNN (20 June 2001), online: .

64 See Munir Kotadia, Spammers Hack Lycos Anti-spam Web Site, ZDNet [Australia] (1
December 2004), online: .

65 See Dan Ilett, Antispam Screensaver Downs Two Sites in China, ZDNet [United
Kingdom] (2 December 2004), online: .

66 See ibid; John Leyden, Fake Lycos Screensaver Harbours Trojan, The Register (7 De-
cember 2004), online: .

67 See Brian McWilliams, Chongq and the Spam Vampires, OReilly (3 December 2004),
online: . See also
Pick Your Poison, online: theScamBaiter: Fighting Scammers Worldwide for Fun and
Justice . Scambaiter invites people to target
Alex Polyakov, an alleged spammer: We need 5000 people all running SpamVampire
for a few months to beat him, so tell everyone you know (ibid at SpamVampire).

68 See Muguito Users Manual, online: Artists Against 419 .


websites.69 In the case of phishing, once a company or institution learns
that its customers are being targeted, it is important to stop the attack as
quickly as possible in order to minimize losses. Usually this involves an
attempt to track down the computer that is hosting the phishing website
and to have that website removed or traffic to the site blocked.70 This can
be a laborious and time-consuming process given that the appropriate
internet service provider (ISP) must be found and convinced to act.71 Mar-
kus Jakobsson and Steven Myers report rumours that where this ap-
proach has been found to be ineffective, some service providers have
launched DoS attacks on the phishing sites in order to prevent potential
victims (their clients) from accessing the phishing sites.72
As for advance fee fraud, the Artists Against 419 used to offer a vari-
ety of bandwidth hogging tools to be used in a 419 Flash Mob.73 These
flash mobs were organized bandwidth attacks against fraudulent sites
many people repeatedly visited the sites until the sites reached their
bandwidth limit or their internet hosts noticed the traffic and shut down
the sites. As Artists Against 419 says, [t]he whole time these run on your
machine, you are stealing bandwidth from the scammers.74
A key problem with responding either with DoS or bandwidth hogging
is that most spammers and phishers are using a network of compromised
computers. As a result, an attempt to strike back at them will likely affect
the owners of compromised computers and their ISPs rather than the
criminals who easily move on to other compromised computers.
DoS or bandwidth hogging are also used to combat P2P file sharing of
copyrighted works. MediaDefender is a company that offers peer-2-peer
anti-piracy solutions of various types, including planting false files on

69 Phishing scams usually begin with a spam email constructed to look like a legitimate
communication from, for example, a financial institution. The email invites the recipi-
ent to open a link to a spoof website, designed to look like the relevant institutions le-
gitimate site, but is actually under the phishers control. The recipient enters personal
information, such as account details. The phisher collects this information and sells it to
cashiers who make fraudulent use of it. The spoof website is often hosted on a com-
puter that has previously been compromised through a security vulnerability or mal-
ware infection.

70 See Markus Jakobsson & Steven Myers, eds, Phishing and Countermeasures: Under-
standing the Increasing Problem of Electronic Identity Theft (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley
& Sons, 2007) at 23.

71 See ibid.
72 Ibid.
73 AA419 Tools, online: Artists Against 419 .

74 Ibid at Bandwidth Attack.


P2P networks to make finding a desired file more difficult and frustrat-
ing.75 In addition, however, MediaDefender is also reported to use inter-
diction and swarming.76 Interdiction is a form of DoS, in which Media-
Defender makes constant connections to the infringing files in order to
exhaust the providers bandwidth and to stop others from downloading
the files.77 Swarming is used to disrupt BitTorrent networks, which as-
semble files from small pieces gathered from different users. MediaDe-
fender provides pieces containing the wrong data, so that the reassembled
file is degraded.78
A recent controversy erupted when MediaDefender disabled the com-
puter network of Revision3, a company that produces and distributes
television shows via BitTorrent.79 Revision3 had been running an open
BitTorrent tracker (a server that coordinates communication between
peers in the network who are trying to transfer files), which, unbe-
knownst to Revision3, was being used to list pointers to a large amount of
unapproved copyrighted content.80 MediaDefender had been accessing the
tracker to post fake files, but when Revision3 noted the problem and
closed the tracker over a holiday weekend in order to fix the problem, Me-
diaDefender appears to have launched a DoS attack against the tracker.
The attack shut down the companys Internet site, RSS server and inter-
nal email.81 MediaDefender maintained this had never happened before
and was unintentional, although Revision3, relying on other reports of
MediaDefenders use of DoS, claimed that MediaDefenders servers were
automatically programmed to launch DoS attacks on formerly open Bit-
Torrent trackers that shut MediaDefender out. The CEO wrote a blog
posting warning others of the risks of such mistakes:

[W]hat if MediaDefender discovers a tracker inside a hospital, fire
department or 911 center? If it happened to us, it could happen to
them too. In my opinion, MediaDefender practices risky business,
and needs to overhaul how it operates. Because in this country, as
far as I know, were still innocent until proven guiltynot drawn,

75 See Nate Anderson, Peer-to-Peer Poisoners: A Tour of MediaDefender (18 March
2007) at 3, online: Ars Technica .

76 Ibid.
77 See ibid.
78 See ibid.
79 See David Kravets, MediaDefender Defends Revision3 SYN Attack, Blog, Wired (31
May 2008), online: ;
Joseph Menn, Anti-piracy Misfire Takes Down Online TV Network Los Angeles Times
(30 May 2008), online: .

80 See Kravets, supra note 79.
81 See ibid.


quartered and executed simply because someone thinks youre an

These anecdotes illustrate that DoS or at least bandwidth hogging
have been used as a form of self-help in several instances in order combat
spam, online fraud, and copyright infringement. These examples also il-
lustrate some of the problems associated with self-help, namely, the risk
of erroneously hitting an innocent party, as well as the risk of escalating
conflicts as a cycle of response and counter-response develops.

2. Counterstrikes, Malware, and Hacking

There have been multiple suggestions in recent years that various
forms of Internet counterstrikes ought to be permissible. The following
overview illustrates the continuing interest in allowing people to hack
back against those who are harming them online, as well as the continu-
ing concern about the potential consequences of doing so.

In 2002, Timothy Mullen set off a lively debate over the propriety of
Internet counterstrikes in the context of trying to stop the propagation of
Internet worms. He proposed that it ought to be permissible to hack into
computers infected with the Nimda worm in order to disable the worm
and prevent its further propagation.83

In 2001, lobbyists attempted to have a provision included in the USA
Patriot Act84 that would have immunized copyright owners from liability
for data losses they caused to others while attempting to impede or pre-
vent electronic piracy.85 These efforts culminated in the Berman Bill in

82 Jim Louderback, Inside the Attack that Crippled Revision3 Blog, Revision3 (29 May
2008), online: .

83 Timothy M Mullen, Defending Your Right to Defend: Considerations of an Automated
Strike-Back Technology Hammer of God (10 September 2002), online: . Mullen writes that

[w]e could certainly have attempted to remove the worms, or even patch the
original vector that the worm used to infect the system, but we believe that is
too much. We are not without respect for the property of the owners of the in-
fected systemswe just (rightfully) value our own property more. To that de-
gree, we want to cause the least possible alteration to the attacking system,
and to leave it as close to its original configuration as possible. We want to
adhere not only to the concept of reasonable force, but to utilize minimal
force where at all possible. Our goal is not to fix everyones systems, and
not to teach lax administrators a lesson. Our goal is to stop the propagation
of global worms (ibid).

84 Pub L No 107-56, 116 Stat 272 (2001).
85 Declan McCullagh, RIAA Wants to Hack Your PC Wired (15 October 2001), online:

[McCullagh, Hack Your PC].


2002, which would have provided legal immunity for disabling P2P file-
sharing networks where there was a reasonable basis to believe piracy
was occurring.86 The bill was criticized on the ground that it would permit
content owners to shut down networks with impunity, affecting all activ-
ity and not just piracy.87 In 2003, Senator Orrin Hatch expressed support
for the idea of aggressive counterstrikes against copyright infringers at a
Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on copyright infringement. If we
can find some way to do this without destroying their machines, we’d be
interested in hearing about that … If that’s the only way, then I’m all for
destroying their machines.88 In 2004, Symbiot released a whitepaper ar-
guing in favour of active countermeasures in defence of computer sys-
tems89 and announced a new computer security service that involved a
range of aggressive countermeasures, apparently including disabling, de-
stroying, or seizing control over the attacking assets.90 The whitepaper
defended the use of offensive tactics, including DDoS, special operations
experts applying invasive techniques, and psychological operations.91
The possibility that these approaches would be used generated consider-
able concern in the security community.92 The descriptions were some-
what vague and no longer seem to be available from Symbiot.

86 US, Bill HR 5211, To Amend Title 17, United States Code: To Limit the Liability of
Copyright Owners for Protecting Their Works on Peer-to-Peer Networks, 107th Cong,
2002, online: US Government Printing Office . See also Declan
McCullagh, Hollywood Hacking Bill Hits House CNET News (25 July 2002), online:
[Berman Bill]; Howard Berman, Intro-
duction of the Peer to Peer Piracy Prevention Act (Statement delivered at the United
States House of Representatives, Washington, DC, 25 July 2002), online:

87 See McCullagh, Hack Your PC, supra note 85.
88 Senator Takes Aim at Illegal Downloads, USA Today (19 June 2003), online:


89 Paco X Nathan & Mike W Erwin, White Paper, 78766-9646, On the Rules of Engage-
ment for Information Warfare (4 March 2004), online : Symbiot .

90 Bruce P Smith, Hacking, Poaching, and Counterattacking: Digital Counterstrikes and
the Contours of Self-Help (2005) 1:1 Journal of Law, Economics and Policy 171 at 177-
78 [footnotes omitted]; See also Bootie Cosgrove-Mather, Vigilante Justice in Cyber-
space CBS News (21 June 2004), online: .

91 Nathan & Erwin, supra note 89.
92 See e.g. Sharon Gaudin, Plan to Fight Back Against Hackers Causes Stir, ESecurity-
Planet (17 March 2004), online: ; Smith, supra note 90


The exploration by two lawyers of the possibility of having courts ap-
prove the hacking of counterfeiters websites, after attempts to pursue the
websites through ISPs had been exhausted, raised considerable criticism
in 2005.93 The concerns had to do chiefly with the risk of harm to innocent
third parties, concern over the possible abuse of power, and the escalation
of the technological battle between the counterfeiter and the court-
sanctioned hacker.94

Some groups and individuals strike back against phishing sites by
hacking into them and modifying them to reveal that they are fraudulent
sites.95 In the words of one of the groups doing this, [l]aw enforcement
cannot be bothered with thembut we can!96

The Internet counterstrikes that may be launched vary from relatively
passive to quite aggressive, and these attacks may differ widely in the de-
gree of unintended damage they are able to cause.97 One key concern is
that many cybercrimes are perpetrated using compromised computers,
the owners and administrators of which may be unaware that their com-
puters are being used in this way. In addition, attackers may use false
source addresses, meaning that a counterstrike may hit an innocent
party, perhaps generating an escalating battle when the innocent parties
themselves react to whatto themis an unprovoked attack.98 Several
legal scholars have considered Internet counterstrikes, suggesting that
they be permitted in limited circumstances, but only when accompanied
with a responsibility to pay damages where the attack is mistakenly

at 179; Munir Kotadia, Security Product to Strike Back at Hackers, CNET News (10
March 2004), online: .

93 See Ronald D Coleman, Lawyerhacking Defended: Co-author of Copyright Hacking Ar-
ticle Replies to Politech Politech (24 October 2005), online: .

94 See Declan McCullagh, More on Barney Lawyer Yearning to Hack Copyright Infring-
ers Sites Politech (18 October 2005), online: .

95 See Vigilantes Deface Phishing Sites Sydney Morning Herald (26 May 2005), online:

96 Ibid.
97 For methods to distinguish between attackers and innocent users before taking action
against them, see Haroon Meer, Roelof Temmingh & Charl Van der Walt, When the
Tables Turn: Passive Strike-Back in Neil R Wyler, ed, Aggressive Network Self-Defense
(Rockland, MA: Syngress, 2005) 339 at 358.

98 See Jayaswal, Yurcik & Doss, supra note 64 at 383; Orin S Kerr, Virtual Crime, Vir-
tual Deterrence: A Skeptical View of Self-Help, Architecture, and Civil Liability, (2005)
1:1 Journal of Law, Economics and Policy 197.


launched against a legitimate party or where innocent bystanders are

In addition to the counterstrikes discussed above, there are other ille-
gal methods that may be used to combat online fraud and crime. Malware
(including viruses, worms, and Trojans) may be used in attempts to
gather evidence of cybercrime. For example, one amateur detective loaded
a Trojan horse program masquerading as a photograph onto child pornog-
raphy sites in order to infect the computers of users of those sites. The in-
formation about child pornography found on those computers was subse-
quently passed to police.100 Information obtained in this way has led to
convictions on several occasions, although there is a risk that evidence of
this type may be excluded as unconstitutional.101
Malware has also been used to try to combat the spread of Internet
worms.102 In the aftermath of the MSBlast worm epidemic, unknown par-
ties wrote another worm, which scanned the Internet for computers with
the same vulnerability as that exploited by MSBlast and then installed a
patch to protect the vulnerable systems against it.103 Although the inten-
tions were good, the spread of the remedial worm, known as Welchia or
Nachi, overwhelmed some networks. In fact, Air Canadas computer sys-
tems were affected, resulting in flight delays and cancellations.104

3. Data Poisoning

One of the responses that appears to have developed to deal both with
phishing and with copyright infringement is the technique known as di-

99 See e.g. Lichtman, supra note 51 at 254; Smith, supra note 90 at 175.
100 See Nancy Gohring, Digital Vigilantes: Hacking for a Good Cause PCWorld (26 De-
cember 2007), online: .

101 See United States v Steiger, 318 F 3(d) 1039, 16 Fla L Weekly Fed C 197 (11th Cir
2003); United States v Jarrett, 338 F 3(d) 339, 61 Fed R Evid Serv 1530 (4th Cir 2003)
revg 229 F Supp 2(d) 503 (ED Va 2002); Lisa M Bowman, Judges OK Evidence from
Hacker Vigilante, CNET News (1 August 2001), online: ; Sharon Gaudin, Vigi-
lante Hackers Evidence Puts Judge Behind Bars Information Week (23 February
2007), online: .

102 See Ingrid Marson, Anti-Santy Worm on the Prowl CNET News (31 December 2004),
online: .
Curtis EA Karnow Launch on Warning: Aggressive Defense of Computer Systems
(2004) 7 Yale JL & Tech 87 at 93 (discussing the creation of anti-Code Red II malware).
103 See Robert Lemos, Good Worm, New Bug Mean Double Trouble, CNET News (19

August 2003), online: .

104 See ibid.


lution, data poisoning, or decoy files. In essence, this involves the de-
livery of a large quantity of false information or degraded files to a site or
network in order to reduce the overall usefulness of the data available
there. The boundary between dilution and DoS attacks becomes blurred
where the amount of disinformation supplied to the targeted site over-
whelms that site.105 Dilution also can be legally questionable where it vio-
lates the contractual terms of use of a targeted site.

There are multiple examples of the dilution approach to self-help in
the context of fighting spam, phishing, and file sharing. Dilution was tried
very early on in the battle against spam. Spammers use bots to harvest
email addresses by crawling through websites. One early approach to
fighting spam was to try to poison the spammers email address lists by
creating enticing pages full of false email addresses, with links to an end-
less loop of further pages of false email addresses.106

In the context of phishing, some banks are reported to have responded
by submitting large amounts of false financial information in order to di-
lute the useful information being received by the phisher.107 Some anti-
phishing service providers offer dilution, which involves feeding false cre-
dentials to phishing websites.108 MarkMonitor writes that [w]hen appro-
priate, MarkMonitor injects active phish sites with properly-formatted
but fakecredentials, rendering them virtually harmless.109 Other vol-
unteer organizations have adopted other forms of poisoning to combat
phishing. Artists Against 419 offers a Fake Bank Form Filler, which
automates the process of filling in false bank information on phishing
pages.110 invited people to send them the URLs in-
cluded in phishing emails. It would then submit thousands of false entries

105 See Alice Dragoon, Sarah D Scalet & Bob Violino, Phishing: the Basics CSO Security

& Risk (April 2009), online: .

106 See James Glave, Wpoison Sets Trap for Spam Weasel, Wired (2 December 1997),
online: . For a discus-
sion of Wpoison, see Wpoison, online: Infinite Monkeys & Company . For a listing of various bot poisoning programs, see Poisoning
Spambots (2 May 2008), online: .
107 See Brian Krebs, New Industry Helping Banks Fight Back The Washington Post (4
March 2005), online: .

108 See Munir Kotadia, Fighting Fraud by Baiting Phishers CNET News (31 March 2006),
online: .

109 Anti-Fraud Solutions, online: Mark Monitor .

110 See Artists Against 419, supra note 73 at Refi Retaliator IIFake Bank Form Filler.


to the phishing sites. avoided the DoS effect by submit-
ting its entries once every twenty seconds, which would not be enough to
consume the phishers bandwidth.111 The dilution or poisoning approach
may not provide a serious impediment to phishers who may simply auto-
mate the verification of the data they collect, or devise methods to detect
submissions from suspicious sources (e.g., multiple submissions from one
source, or submissions sent via anonymous remailers and cloakers).112

The dilution approach has also been adopted by copyright owners to
combat P2P file sharing. The method involves injecting into the network
large numbers of decoy files that look like the desired files but in fact are
unreadable or different from what was expected.113 This is meant to dis-
courage file sharing by making it harder for people to find the files they
wish to download. As a result, P2P systems have developed techniques to
defeat poisoning, including various forms of reputation system.114
MediaDefender is a company that offers peer-2-peer anti-piracy solu-
tions, which are described as non-invasive technological countermea-
sures … to frustrate users attempts to steal/trade copyrighted content.115
The company states that decoying and spoofing are their most com-
monly used techniques, which involve planting false files in P2P networks
and sending searchers to the wrong locations in order to make the real file
more difficult and frustrating to locate.116

111 How PhishFighting works

(1 September 2005), online:


112 See Sandi Hardmeier, Fighting Back Against PhishingTwo Wrongs do not Make a
Right, Blog, Spyware Sucks (11 September 2005), online: .

113 See Nicolas Christin, Andreas S Weigend & John Chuang, Content Availability, Pollu-
tion and Poisoning in File Sharing Peer-to-Peer Networks (2005) [unpublished, ar-
chived at ACM], online: p2pecon@berkeley .

114 See ibid at 7. For a discussion of IP blocking programs to significantly reduce your
chances of connecting with malicious peers, see e.g. IP Blocking for uTorrent in Win-
dows XP & Vista (1 April 2008), online: FileShareFreak . The Bluetack blocklist FAQ indicates that users of P2P should use at
least Level 1 blocking, which blocks inter alia companies known to be involved with try-
ing to stop file sharing, companies that have a strong financial interest in copyrighted
material, and a range of others from whom anti-P2P activity has been observed. See
FAQ Questions about the Blocklists: What is in the blocklists?, online: Bluetack
Internet Security Solutions .

115 Peer-2-Peer Anti-Piracy Solutions (2007), online: MediaDefender [emphasis in original].

116 See Anderson, supra note 75 at S3.


One of the standard license terms included in the P2P software pro-
gram KaZaA forbids users from intentionally uploading spoofed files or
files with information designed to misidentify the actual content of the
file.117 Although some suggest that this provision might be void as con-
trary to public policy, the provision technically does make poisoning a
breach of contract.118

4. Defamation Attacks

Defamation attacks are attempts to disrupt the underground
marketplaces in which stolen financial information is traded.119 These
sophisticated online marketplaces feature volume discounts, and pricing
variations, such as higher pricing for stolen credit cards with higher credit
limits.120 Also available on these markets are bank account data and full
identities [including] date of birth, address, and social security and
telephone numbers.121 Administrators of the markets verify participants
in an attempt to permit market participants to distinguish between the
honest and dishonest criminals.122 Various services are also advertised,
including those of cashiers who specialize in converting financial data into
money, and others who sell the email lists and compromised computers
for use in phishing.123

117 KaZaA End User License Agreements at s 2.15, online: KaZaA cited in Lichtman, supra note 51 at 253 (2.15 Intention-
ally make available spoofed files or data, or files or data with any type of information
designed to misidentify the actual content of a file or which is intended to mislead the
recipient of the file).

118 See Lichtman, supra note 51 at 253-54.
119 See John Dunn, Supermarket for Stolen Credit Cards Found Techworld (26 March
2008), online: ;
Tom Zeller Jr, Black Market in Stolen Credit Card Data Thrives on Internet The New
York Times (21 June 2005), online: ; Dean Turner, ed, White Paper, Symantec Global Internet Security
Threat Report: Trends for JulyDecember 07, vol 8, (Symantec, 2008) at 17, online:
Symantec .

120 See ibid at 19.
121 Jacob Leibenluft, Credit Card Numbers for Sale: How Much Does a Visa or Master-
Card Number Go For these Days?, Slate (24 April 2008), online: .

122 See Jason Franklin et al, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of
Internet Miscreants (Paper presented to the 14th ACM Conference on Computer and
Communications Security, Alexandria, Va, 29 October- 2 November 2007) [unpub-
lished] at 376, online: The International Computer Science Institute Networking Group

123 See ibid at 376.


Researchers of these underground marketplaces have suggested a
couple of counter-measures to reduce the number of transactions.124 The
so-called slander attack involves eliminating the verified status of a
buyer or seller through false defamation.125 The purpose is to create a
lemon market by falsely defaming verified participants, so that there is no
price advantage to trustworthiness, causing the general quality of the
market to decline.126
Although it seems unlikely that the victims would complain, it may be
defamatory to spread false information that a vendor of stolen credit cards
sells cards that will not work. It is generally defamatory to impute dis-
honesty to someone, although in this case it seems inappropriate for the
law to protect a reputation for honour among thieves.

C. Application of the Principles to Self-Help in Cyberspace

The purpose of this section is to illustrate how the principles of techno-
logical self-help, discussed above, might play out in the context of some of
these types of self-help in cyberspace. In particular, I will consider the ef-
fects on equality of the use of the Internet in these self-help activities, the
issue of arms racing, and the problem of harm to bystanders.

Inequality in physical strength is not the relevant dimension of ine-
quality in the context of online attacks. Instead, attackers and victims
may differ in the degree of computing expertise or the amount of band-
width that they can muster. In addition, cyberspace has several structural
attributes that more subtly affect the balance of strength between parties
online. I will call two of these attributes the amplification effect and the
coordination effect.
One key attribute of the Internet is the amplification effect. In es-
sence, the Internet enables one person to affect a huge number of people
since it both shrinks distances and permits a high degree of automation.
The collapse of distances allows an individual on one side of the globe to
consider hacking targets throughout the world. Automation renders ac-
tivities like spamming and phishing profitable because of the scale in-
crease and cost reduction that it enables. It is fair to say that this attrib-
ute of the Internet amplifies the power and reach of the individual.
The coordination effect is another key attribute of the Internet. It

flows from the many-to-many structure of the network. In essence, col-

124 See ibid.
125 Ibid at 387.
126 See ibid.


laboration between large and physically scattered groups of people is
made simple. Examples of this effect are numerous: wikis and P2P file
sharing are two such examples. DDoS attacks also illustrate this effect.
The flood of communications that disable a target is made possible by
harnessing an army of individual computers into a coordinated attack. In
these examples, individual people or computers are empowered by the
network to accomplish things collectively that simply could not be done as
effectively alone.
All of these factors suggest that the Internet has shifted power toward
individuals, for better or worse, considerably beyond their previous limita-
tions. In some cases, this power is misused against others online. An ap-
proach to self-help that is sensitive to inequality would permit victims to
adopt measures that are arguably necessary to neutralize the level of
strength that an attacker obtains through the amplification and coordina-
tion effects, as well as through a higher-than-usual level of technical
know-how. This would mean (a) permitting victims to employ security
services to defend themselves, in order to neutralize the disparity in tech-
nical know-how between victims and attackers; (b) permitting victims to
make use of the coordination effect by engaging in certain forms of collec-
tive response (e.g., bandwidth-hogging tools up to and perhaps including
DDoS attacks); (c) permitting victims to disrupt the harmful use of coor-
dination by others (e.g., by permitting defamation attacks and by allowing
data poisoning of file-sharing networks with degraded and mislabeled
versions of copyrighted content); and (d) permitting victims to take advan-
tage of the amplification effect (e.g., bandwidth hogging up to and perhaps
including levels of DoS).
As is the case with self-help in general, where a victim fights back in a
manner that is unreasonably dangerous, bystanders who are harmed may
sue in negligence. This is most likely a necessary control on the use of
self-help in cyberspace, where it is likely that bystanders may be harmed
by certain kinds of attacks. As noted above, many forms of harmful activ-
ity online are launched from networks of compromised computers
botnets. On the one hand, an attack on one of these computers is
unlikely to greatly disrupt the activities of the controller of the botnet,
since the botnet offers thousands of compromised computers to take the
place of the attacked computer. On the other hand, the hapless owner of
that computer and his ISP will have to deal with the attack. Where a vic-
tim attacks a phishing website hosted on a compromised computer, the
ISP who offers services for that computer and other users of the ISPs ser-
vices will have their service degraded as well. The existence of a claim in
negligence for such cases would hopefully ensure that the risk being im-
posed by the party engaging in self-help was reasonable under the cir-
cumstances, and that the harm to innocent bystanders was not too severe.


In fact, an approach of this type might spur innovation in the area of
how to target responses more carefully. For example, Meer, Temmingh,
and Van der Walt propose an intermediate response that they call pas-
sive strike-back. They suggest that the danger of harming innocent par-
ties is obviated with the passive strike back because

[t]he driving principle behind passive strike-back is that the strike-
back is never launched against anyone. Unlike signature-based de-
fence systems passive strike-back doesnt attempt to spot an attack
and then respond, rather passive strike-back allows the attacker to
fetch the strike-back attack himself.127

As they say, [i]f we can accurately distinguish an attacker who surfs our
site from a legitimate user, we can easily send malicious code to be exe-
cuted in the browser.128 They suggest mechanisms to distinguish attack-
ers from legitimate users, such as responding to scanners with intriguing
messages that suggest vulnerability at a particular location and deliver-
ing malicious code only to those who then go to the location to investi-
Clearly, innovation of this type is likely to draw forth counter-
innovation in how to dodge these techniques. It is the kind of technologi-
cal arms race that legal regulation is sometimes required to halt. The
question is whether technological self-help is in fact a wasteful arms race
that we wish to stop. Unlike the invention of bigger and more destructive
weapons with which to out-class an opponent, the kind of invention in this
arms race may involve techniques more akin to cloaking, detection,
counter-cloaking, and so on. This type of arms race may generate innova-
tions with other uses and so might not be a wasteful arms race.

In sum, a concern with inequality of strength in the context of cyber-
space attacks would look not at physical strength but at the manner in
which the Internet provides an attacker with the ability to launch auto-
mated and coordinated attacks across great distances. It would suggest
that a defender should be able to make use of technological responses that
help neutralize this disparity in strength. Yet, the problem of harm to by-
standers is a real one, which should be controlled through negligence li-
ability. This liability risk may help generate useful innovation in the form
of techniques that offer a more precisely targeted and calibrated response
that reduces harm to bystanders.

127 Meer, Temmingh & Van der Walt, supra note 97 at 351.
128 Ibid at 358.
129 See ibid.


This article has sought to clarify the relationship between legal self-

help, technology, and equality. Each of these three elements is in a com-
plex relationship with the other two.
With respect to self-help and technology, the legal rules guiding self-
help sometimes condone and sometimes prohibit resort to technological
tools with which to pursue ones legal interests. This has important rami-
fications for the efficacy of self-help. Technological evolution may chal-
lenge the balance at the heart of the rules on self-help. Technologies may
increase or decrease destructiveness and risks to bystanders. In addition,
if technologies can be freely used to pursue legal interests, a technological
arms race may develop. It is necessary to consider whether that arms race
is wasteful or productive when deciding whether or not resort to a given
technology should be an acceptable action in self-help.

Self-help regimes and equality are also linked. Self-help regimes are
said to undermine equality since they favour the strong over the weak,
which suggests that a monopoly on state enforcement of legal rights is
more conducive to social equality. This is not necessarily true, given that
access to justice is not equally distributed.
As for the relationship between technology and equality, the usual
story of the source of inequality, rooted in unequal access to technology, is
an incomplete picture. Technologies may promote or decrease equality,
and may do so to a net social benefit or detriment. Some technologies may
require us to face a difficult choice between allowing the use of technolo-
gies that promote equality and imposing net social costs on other values.

In the end, the principles for determining the legal bounds of techno-
logical self-help should build on the recognized self-help principles related
to necessity, reasonableness, and proportionality. When determining
whether to accept the use of a given technology, the principles should also
include explicit consideration of the effects on equality, the bystander
risks, and the question of whether the innovative arms race would be
wasteful or productive.

The forms of human interaction and the nature of the harms that
matter, shift with technological evolution. Therefore, when considering
the effects of a technology on equality when used in self-help, one should
consider not only equality in physical strengththe usual dimension of
equality at issue in self-defence, for examplebut also other ways in
which parties differ in their ability to protect their legal interests.