You cannot censor the Internet. You cannot subpoena a hashtag. You cannot arrest an idea. You CAN expect us.” These are the words of decentralised hacktivist online group Anonymous, tweeted as they launched a hailstorm of Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attacks on various websites just hours after the US Government shut down Megaupload.com on Thursday 19 January. Their attacks successfully brought down websites belonging to the RIAA, MPAA, Universal Music, the Department of Justice, the US Copyright Office, EMI, the FBI and others by flooding them with requests, but a number of outlets have begun accusing them of falling head first into a trap.
Thursday’s wave of activity saw the largest coordinated attack in the history of Anonymous, with over 9000 participants – both willing and oblivious. Unsurprisingly, their efforts have been slated as counterproductive, with claims that the US government had deliberately timed the Megaupload takedown to occur directly after the SOPA protests where Wikipedia, Wordpress and various websites underwent a blackout to raise awareness against provisions in the acts.
If this is true, then it is plausible that not only did the US Government take heed of Anonymous’s words, to “expect us”, but that they also considered such actions may play in their favour by overshadowing the peaceful and lawful protests from all the websites blacking out last week. Popular tech website CNET’s Molly Wood reported that “if the SOPA/PIPA protests were the web’s moment of inspiring, non-violent, hand-holding civil disobedience, [the move by Anonymous] feels like the unsettling wave of car-burning hooligans that sweep in and incite the riot portion of the play.’’
It is likely that this would be ripe ammunition for the US government to use against freedom on the internet and I think this will cause them to call for tighter internet controls to crack down on what they perceive as cyber-terrorism, and at the very least, may provide emotional motivation for them to do so.
The websites blacked out on Thursday to protest against provisions in the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) bills, which threatened the health of the internet. If they went through, the US government would have the ability to order ISPs to alter their DNS servers from resolving the offending websites, to force search engines like Google to modify their results to exclude such sites, and so on. Outright censorship. I’m not an advocate of piracy, though I believe in freedom of speech and believe the internet is our safest place to express this.
I’d heard of Megaupload through MegaVideo. It was notorious for limiting videos to 72 minutes, and I was firmly aware that it was a site mostly used to transfer pirated files. It wasn’t too long before people discovered how to make their film nights more convenient in first year, circumventing the MegaVideo limit by simply switching from the Imperial wireless connection to a wired one.
While some people did use Megaupload to illegally pirate files, it must be noted a great deal of users had legitimate intent, for instance transferring files which were too big for E-mail. I believe the US’s rash decision to take it down without warning was completely unjustified, and there has been emphasis lately on users who wonder what happened to their files.
This raises another interesting question regarding cloud services: why Megaupload and not, for example, Rapidshare? In fact, Rapidshare reportedly are “not concerned” about the takedown, emphasising that they don’t provide features such as a rewards system for frequently downloaded files. Rapidshare, Dropbox and Windows Live SkyDrive all fall into the same category from a technical perspective, and a fair proportion of us use these services regularly. What happens to our files if a service is taken down?
Megaupload’s servers contained more than 25 petabytes of data (over 25,000,000 gigabytes), personal files, and I’m appalled at their availability being so abruptly withdrawn. Your music library is your personal soundtrack to your life, a photo is potentially an instance of a treasured memory and your documents are the fruits of your ongoing creative efforts, work related or not. Take away access to all my files today and you’ll be taking away my life. For this, I think that cloud backup and storage are not real substitutes to their local equivalents, and while Megaupload had a lot more problems than piracy (their employees were accused of money laundering and trafficking), I’m hesitant to store mission critical data up there in case of some kind of amalgamation of Murphy’s law and freak unavailability.
More to the point, now all those 25 petabytes are in the possession of the feds, it’s likely they’ll go through as much of it as possible to secure a conviction. It’s also likely that IP addresses of uploaders were logged too. See where I’m going with this? Privacy is completely out the window, and the US government nonchalantly demonstrated they didn’t really need SOPA anyway.
Now while I disagree with these violations, I must also disagree with some methods used by Anonymous to DDOS the affected websites after Megaupload went down. The attacks were conducted by the aptly named Low Orbit Ion Cannon program (C&C gamers will get the reference), a piece of software initially written by the ‘’good guys’’ to perform stress tests and load balancing on networks. The software was later open sourced and people began voluntarily using it to flood websites with connection requests, causing them to overload and go down. It even has a ‘’Hive Mind’’ mode, where the program acts as a slave and accepts commands originating online, allowing for increased coordination.
Some Anonymous spokespersons responded saying that “preying on unsuspecting users is despicable”, and that they “need to fight for the user, not land them in jail”, though we cannot be sure who can speak for them and whose word to trust, due to their decentralised nature. These issues surrounding Anonymous give the vigilante group an aura of recklessness, which the US government don’t hesitate to exaggerate, and while SOPA appears to have indeed perished, we can only ask ourselves: at what cost? Now excuse me while I mourn Megaupload with 72 minutes of silence.