fortune logo

Business Life
Company Lists
Fortune 500
Small Business
Boards & Chat
Site Map
Free Trial Issues
Stock/Fund Quotes:

Business Resources

Fortune Magazine Books

Money Magazine Books

Free Trial: Money Magazine

Fortune Education Program

Fortune Conferences


spacer gif

February 14, 2000
Virtual Sit-Ins

Talk About It

The media has been filled with speculation about the motives of those who took down some of the most prominent sites on the Web last week. Most observers pointed the finger at Black-Hat hackers -- mischievous people with time on their hands, few moral standards, and something to prove.

But I have the distinct feeling that these attacks are politically motivated. The result of people who view the commercialization of the Internet as symbolic of everything they don't like about the New Economy. What better way to protest the huge amounts of wealth being made by Internet entrepreneurs than to clog up's site on the day of its initial public offering. What better way to protest the growing infatuation with money than to clog up E*Trade. Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, CNN, all symbols -- in the minds of some -- of capitalism run amuck.

And there are growing numbers of people out there who think like this. I heard some of them on radio talk shows last week. No one would come right out and say they supported the cyber attacks, but there was plenty of sympathy for them. These are the same sorts of people that tried to shut down Seattle protesting the World Trade Organization.

William Gibson meets the Wobblies. The sit-down strike adapted for the Web. Why block traffic on a roadway when you can do it easier, more effectively, and anonymously, on the Internet? The perpetrators of last week's events may indeed turn out to be apolitical hackers. Even if they are, I have no doubt that we will see major cyber attacks mounted by political activists in the future. In fact, it has already begun to happen. Last year eToys took legal action to shut down an avant-garde art site called The retailer eToys claimed its customers might confuse the two sites. But eToys ignored the fact that etoy had been in existence before eToys was even founded.

The dispute was eventually settled, but not before supporters of launched a concerted effort to drive down eToys' stock price and disrupt its business through a denial of service campaign. Etoys stock dropped from $67 at the time it filed suit against etoy, to $19 when it finally dropped the suit. (The group that organized the anti-eToys effort can be found at The site is full of anti-corporate commentary.)

As far as I know, the supporters did not use the sophisticated, and anonymous, software techniques employed by last week's hackers. But the intent was the same: denial of service. Make it difficult for others to use the site. Shut down the business.

Political movements have employed similar civil actions for years. In the early part of this century general strikes led by the labor movement shut down San Francisco, Seattle, and Minneapolis. Sit-down strikes by auto workers taking over assembly plants immobilized the auto industry.

The anti-war movement had its forms of mass civil protest. Railroad tracks were blockaded to stop munitions trains. The March on Washington D.C. tried to shut down the Pentagon. The civil rights movement waged lunch counter sit-ins, economic boycotts, and mass demonstrations to achieve its goals.

There is a key difference between the mass movements of the past, and the cyber attacks of the today. General strikes, economic boycotts, and sit-down strikes only work with the support of large numbers of people. One person could not shut down an entire city. But one person, along with an army of unthinking computers, can shut down significant portions of the Internet. That's the scary part. When the Weathermen, a small group of extremists, were bombing their way through the 1960s and 1970s, they had very little real impact on society. They did create some psychological terror, but in the end their efforts failed.

A similar small group today could cause major economic havoc. Think of a sophisticated group of hackers, with zeal and political intent, launching cyber attacks on companies and institutions across the Internet.

An animal rights protester who lets a few rats out of their cages may disrupt an experiment or two, but consider the impact of a cyber attack on Procter & Gamble. A bomb outside the New York Stock Exchange may garner some headlines, but imagine the impact of a concerted cyber attack on Nasdaq.

I'm not worried about legitimate political and social organizations. I'm concerned about extremists who believe that their desperate actions are for the benefit of society. With the Internet becoming more and more central to our economic and social lives, a small band of zealots can have an outsized impact on all of us.

  Email this article
Printing? Use this version        

Loose Change

marty weiss February 14 11:43 AM

  I found your comments on e-terrorism very interesting. That's why when I do business on the internet I will only choose companies which have linked brick and mortar operations. In case the e-site goes down, I know there is a nearby physical presence I can go to.

Those who say that the internet will put the brick and mortar places out of business are going to be proven wrong because of these attacks.


Meredith Poor February 14 12:53 PM

  Time after time, we find the people that organize protests in their youth are the very same people organizing enterprises after they "grow up".


Anonymous February 14 04:10 PM

  What an amazing time. If only MLK had the power of the Internet behind him. It's revolting to see the greed that has surfaced online. Online protests are just another way of voicing opinion -- a harmless political protest. Thank you for this refreshing article on an event that is unfortunately turning into a Wall Street-supported witch hunt.


jaded February 15 12:39 AM

  That´s funny. I thought the guys that hacked the sites were potential competitors for the traffic, just trying to screw up the big sites so people would ¨naturally¨ be drawn to the less visited alternatives. Never believe in perfect theories. Money is behind EVERYthing.


Just Me February 15 02:16 AM

  A beautiful encapsulating article. I only wish you had referred to these hackers for what they are : E-holes.

 Your name:

 Your Comment:

Fortune Online requires all participants in interactive areas to accept the terms of the subscriber agreement for Fortune's Online site. Please read the agreement before making comments. When you press the "Post My Message" button, you are agreeing to accept and follow the terms of the agreement.

Search Fortune   Help

Copyright ©2000 Time Inc.


Tech Bellwethers
+4     109.875

-00.3125     99.625
-00.4375     130.5
-5.625     165.75
-00.3125     50.0625

street life
Stocks Recover Swimmingly

Clicks and Mortar
The latest common-sense trend in e-commerce blends the digital with the old-fashioned.

Dot-Com Time Bomb On Madison Avenue
Net companies are spending hundreds of millions to build their brands. Problem is, it's all going to stop after Christmas.

Recent Columns
-> Is Opportunism Enough?
February 11, 2000
-> vs. the RIAA
February 10, 2000
-> Let's Hear It for the Old Farts
February 7, 2000
-> Incubators Are Hatching Themselves
February 4, 2000

subscribe free
Valley Talk by E-mail
Get the latest from FORTUNE's Silicon Valley bureau fresh to your inbox every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

E-mail Valley Talk
Send your comments, compliments and complaints to the writers of Valley Talk.

Web Resources

100 Best Companies To Work For
Swimming pools and surging pay may give employees a lift, but continual training and humane treatment get the best ones to stick around.

company lists
America's Most Admired Companies
The corporations that rise to the top exemplify ingenuity and other admirable qualities.

    Top of Page