Composite of the PayPal 14's mug shots, via the Smoking Gun
When it comes to acts of civil disobedience by hackers and online activists, the US government has a history of levying huge charges. But today, 13 defendants in the PayPal 14 case agreed to plea bargains that were met with some relief from the activist community.
Today’s trial saw 13 of the 14 accused in court, and the majority of them pleaded guilty to damaging a protected computer, a violation under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). The fourteenth member was not in court due to a separate trial in Virginia.
Per a plea deal with federal prosecutors, each of the 13 defendants in court today will pay $5,600 in restitution to eBay, which owns PayPal. According to Alexa O'Brien, sentencing was delayed for a year, which set up the mechanism for the plea bargains. Eleven of the defendants pleaded guilty to felony and misdemeanor charges; if they stay out of trouble for a year, prosecutors agreed that they'll give up felony charges which means no jail time, just probation. The other two pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges, which carry a jail term of 90 days.
The US government was initially seeking out punishments of up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000, but the final deals are much lighter, which may reflect the protest-driven nature of the case.
For those unfamiliar with the PayPal 14 story, it begins in December 2010, when PayPal halted donation payments to WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks supporters were outraged by PayPal’s stance, and protested by way of a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack that flooded PayPal’s servers with false traffic from December 6th to the 10th, rendering the site useless. Less than a year later, 14 people in the United States (and 5 overseas) were arrested by the FBI for participating in the protest.
The trial thus focused on the legitimacy of digital protest, and the deals offered by prosecutors in San Jose may set a precedent for future cases against digital protesters. Speaking on the case in the We Are Legion documentary, PayPal 14 attorney Stanley Cohen called it “a pure case of internet cyber sit-ins, of First Amendment activity.”
Earlier this year, Motherboard’s Leandro Oliva wrote “it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect the spirit of the law to recognize at least some distinction between nuisance DDoS actions and truly malicious botnet attacks,” adding “the pressure to rethink the meaning of civil disobedience for digital spaces is growing.”
Even then, a number of online commentators argued that the PayPal 14's actions shouldn't be illegal in the first place, as they came as part of a larger hacktivist movement in support of WikiLeaks. But as the criminal defense attorney Alexis Briggs explained on Twitter, it's quite possible the 14 accepted the punishment to avoid a trial and risk "permanent disenfranchisement as felons.”