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The war of the internets  

Editorial - 21 June 2011

By Mehdi

It may seem strange to associate "internet" and "war" – but not to those familiar with the history of the internet.

The internet was born in the 60's during the Cold War. It was called ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), and it was financed and directed by the Department of Defense, i.e. with public money. The purpose was to design a communication network resilient enough that if a significant chunk of it was destroyed, it would still work. Happily, we didn't experience such a disaster.

However, its descendant, the civil internet, became a social phenomenon in the 90's.

Since then, the internet became what we could call the Sixth Continent, where there are no borders, no hierarchy, no laws. We could very well call it Utopia.

Today the internet is admittedly the most democratic of channels: From your keyboard, you can access information no one would have have dreamt about 15 years ago. Thanks to websites and social media, it became an unequaled means for making ideas, opinions and information worldwide instantly. Without a doubt the founding fathers and French revolutionaries could never have imagined such a tool would make the fundamental right of information so easy to exercise.

Not a dream-come-true for everyone

For some, it is a nightmare-come-true that needs regulation, censorship and control.

Last year's Wikileaks publication of U.S. State Department and Pentagon cables about Iraq and Afghanistan war conduct could be seen as the meeting point between the fundamental right of information and technology – perhaps better described as a collision. These showed the contradiction between what the government and military were saying publicly compared to internal communication and actual action in the field – what they were saying versus what they were doing in the name of the people who elected them. These government and military lies were, of course, not in the interest of the people, but for a few whose wealth and power it was serving and continues serving.

The revelations also showed how lacking the media is; it should have held power to account. Obviously, the Wikileaks revelations raised furor and panic among governments, starting with the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was disclosed as directing diplomatic agents worldwide to spy on UN officials by collecting personnal data from fingerprints to credit card numbers. This showed the truer face of U.S. diplomacy.

Although the White House was not bothered much about consequences from these revelations apart from possible mistrust of governments in the future, humiliation was evident.

In France Minister of the Digital Economy Eric Besson was shocked by the Wikileak revelations (although they didn't mention him – maybe that's why he was angered). He asked the General Council of Industry, Energy and Technology to find an excuse to kick it off French servers, focusing on the web hosting service OVH.

We must indulge this person who believes that the "e" in e-mail, eBay, e-commerce... comes from "economy." After all, he is no better or worse than colleagues. At the same time (now former) Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie was about to provide her "friend," former Tunisian president Ben Ali, with French police savoir-faire so that he could control the revolution fomenting in his country.

Outside of France, reactions were more hostile:

  • Calls for the assassination of Julian Assange, co-founder and Wikileaks spokesman, by characters who unfortunately get the chance to make their criminal ideas known on mainstream U.S. media
  • A red-level Interpol international arrest warrant for Assange (wanted simply for a hearing in Sweden, with no charges against him until recently), while Gaddafi, who was bombing his own people got only an orange-level warrant
  • Arrest of Assange in England where he has been under house arrest for more than six months with no charges. Note that the UK is a safe haven for internationally wanted criminals, who find refuge and are free to move about.
  • The European Union turned a blind eye on the misuse and abuse of arrest warrant procedure. The intent was to extradite Assange to Sweden where he could face a behind-closed-doors trial resulting in extradition to the U.S. to face the death penalty if fabricated charges succeed. An Alexandria (Virginia) grand jury is studying how Assange could be charged.
  • Even Assange's own country, Australia, tried in vain to strip him of his passport. Prime Minister Julian Gillard will certainly have to answer for her actions; people are increasingly aware of what happenned.

Counter-offensives

To discourage potential military whistleblowers, the Pentagon decided to prosecute a young soldier, Bradley Manning, the alleged source of Wikileaked documents.

Activists and hacktivists joined efforts to help Wikileaks, its members and Manning by hosting Wikileaks mirror sites to keep data online while it was undergoing denial-of-service attacks.

Others like Anonymous launched denial of service attacks against companies – Visa, Mastercard, Amazon, Paypal, MoneyBroker, Swiss Post – that curtailed services to make donations supporting Wikileaks harder to get. Late 2010 attacks against Visa, Mastercard and Paypal were particularly efficient.

This was only the beginning. A few months later in April a group called LulzSec (for Lulz Security) launched spectacular attacks against Sony websites. Using a simple technique called "SQL injection" they got data from almost 100 million user accounts and revealed poor security on Sony servers. Passwords were stored in plain text, oblivious to a basic security precaution to encrypt them. Sony's humiliation is surpassed only by its incompetence. LulzSec has been featured in articles including in the Wall Street Journal and have gained more than 100,000 Twitter followers.

For those not familiar with the whole story which mainstream media again failed to tell, attacks on Sony result largely from its own behavior – harassment and law suits against a hacker who tweaked a Playstation he purchased to give it more features. By doing this Sony made itself the enemy of hackers worldwide.

Countering the counter offensives

Faced with hacker threats, the Pentagon declared in May that cyberattacks will be considered acts of war and could be answered with traditional military means. This is important in the unfolding history of digital democracy. Thirty years ago the internet escaped the military when no one could have imagined what it would become. Now it is the center of the military's attention as they try to regain control by threat of force.

NATO followed the Pentagon in June by publishing a report where it shows it clearly intends to persecute Anonymous for the danger it represents to "national security" (read private interests). The military sees hackers as a fuzzy, anonymous, but highly connected and efficient threat that could expose dirty war secrets and give power back to the people.

Governments are on board out of the same fear: The free flow of information has made everyone a potential whistleblower, which could lead to exposing what they are really doing. Stakes are high. Too many dirty secrets have been hidden from the people. There's no turning back. Failure is not an option. Governments will do anything to fight the inevitable information revolution.

First moves were to pass laws that restrict free flow of information through censorship. When you don't hear about a scandal, you can't be shocked or complain about it.

A good excuse to implement censorship was needed. Enter child pornography, a highly charged topic. What people forget or don't know is that blocking a pedopornographic website doesn't make it disappear; there are ways to circumvent censorship or blocking. The only solution is to close them down. This can happen only if the country where a website is hosted takes action. Eventually this would entail international cooperation. Governments find it more convenient to ask us to sacrifice our fundamental right of information. If people hear the same message from politicians and in the media, they end up thinking there is no other choice than censorship. Easy.

Scare tactics

To discourage people from joining Anonymous, Spanish and Turkish governments arrested a number of people (mostly minors) supposedly members of Anonymous. (Spanish police even said they were "leaders" who took part in attacks against government websites.) When people see that governments are jailing teenagers just to scare off participation, it will only encourage them to join in.

After the LOPPSI pro-censorship law was voted earlier this year, the French government is about to go even further by blocking virtually any website it dislikes.

In view of the gravity of the situation, the United Nations risked havoc among members by publishing a report stating that an internet connection is a fundamental right.

The three internets

  • the internet as seen by the Pentagon and NATO: It should serve only for non-protest and non-disruptive activities. Culprits would face a traditional military kind of response.
  • the internet of governments: They would control everything going in and coming out No political or investigative activity could take place that would disrupt the establishment.

  • the internet of conscientious netizens aware of the stakes at play, who understand that humanity is at a crossroads of history. This is where the choice is between a neutral (i.e. non-censored) internet accessible to all as a fundamental right gives power back to the people. This is the kind of internet that creates a balance of power not allowing accumulation of wealth and power by a few to the detriment of all.

It's the same kind of choice that faced our forefathers when printing was invented. Do we want a world with or without books? Do we want to have publishers everywhere, or do we let only the church be able to publish?

Which of these internets will win the war?

This depends on the mobilization of the final holder of power – the people.

It is worth noting the similarity between Anonymous (decentralized and leaderless) and that of the spontaneous revolutionary movements of "indignados" that started in Spain. Unfortunately, thanks to media skewing, the same people who take part in these movements regard Anonymous with skepticism. Otherwise, they could help each other by joining forces.

Tunisians and Egyptians understood quickly that Anonymous was there to help – sometimes save them. While NATO was still supporting former President Ben Ali and the French Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie was about to send him French police expertise, it was Anonymous that was helping people deal with severe censorship intended to cripple communication among revolutionaries as well as spy on them. Virtually no media communicated this except Al Jazeera.

Are hackers impressed or scared by threats of the Pentagon, NATO and governments?

LulzSec announced June 20 that the only thing that would interrupt their activities would be if they were arrested. The same day LulzSec and Anonymous announced collaboration on a new operation, "AntiSec," intended to hack government/organization websites to search for information in the people's interest. They also called on other hackers to join their efforts. According to LulzSec's tweets, that they are getting interesting data.

Welcome to the revolution of the Age of Information.

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