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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 Buy.com'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 etoy.com. 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 etoy.com 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 http://www.rtmark.com/. The site is full of anti-corporate commentary.)
As far as I know, the etoy.com 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.
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