Douglas Rushkoff on Sun, 13 Feb 2000 05:32:30 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Crude but Effective

Yahooıs Last Stand
By Douglas Rushkoff, Guardian, UK

We may never know exactly who perpetrated the string of attacks on the
World Wide Webıs most trafficked sites this week. It could have been
international terrorists attempting to destabilize NASDAQ, or even a shady
Internet security firm hoping to create a market for its own services. But
itıs certainly easy enough to understand the motives for such an outbreak
of cyber-sabotage in the context of todayıs widespread resentment towards
the corporations who have commandeered the Internet. 

Numerous programs capable of disabling web sites in precisely the way that
Yahoo,, and other companies were paralyzed have been available on
public bulletin boards for months. Why would people take the trouble, and
even put themselves at risk to distribute these black market tools? 

Although media pundits and the Internetıs usual cast of spokespeople have
unanimously condemned the "denial of service" tactic that the program
employs, the general sentiment on discussion lists and among students I
spoke with at NYUıs Interactive Telecommunications Program has been one of
amusement and even celebration. While some criticize the hack for its
brazen destructiveness, many seem to feel that just such a display of
primitive bravado effectively challenges the business communityıs
assumption that the World Wide Web is an impenetrable safe haven for

The Internet, we must remember, was developed as a national resource with
public funds. While it may have been first engineered with our defense
interests in mind, by the early 1990ıs the Internet was the province of
academics, researchers, and hobbyists. Business was strictly forbidden,
and new users were required to agree never to exploit the interactive
infrastructure for commercial purposes. 

The result was a delightfully unpredictable communications space. The
Internet challenged peopleıs assumptions about their dependence on mass
media for information. It allowed any kid in Iowa to express himself in
the same size ASCII text as a politician in Washington, DC. The Internet
leveled the playing field, and seemed to herald a global conversation in
which not only money would talk. It wasnıt a safe place at all, but the
online territoryıs indigenous population wasnıt looking for safety; they
were too busy cherishing open access and newfound power. 

By the mid-nineties, as businesses colonized the newly de-regulated World
Wide Web, the chaotic character of cyberspace was sacrificed to the
priorities of commerce. Secure transactions, brand image and NASDAQ
valuations took precedence over uncensored conversation and self-governing
community. In practice and in perception, the Internetıs users were
converted into consumers. 

 "Technology has changed not only the way people do business; it has
changed the way criminals do business too," US Attorney General Janet Reno
explained in a press conference Wednesday, contextualizing the attacks in
the prevailing American parlance of commerce. Her cause-and-effect
analysis is backwards. Business has changed the way people utilize
technology, and now the more rebellious of those people are fighting back.
Double-click and other web businesses have no qualms about planting
cookies their visitorsı hard drives ­ essentially running programs on
private citizensı computers without permission. Apparently, some hackers
felt it was appropriate to launch an analogous countermeasure, however
illegal and unethical it was. 

Most well-known hackers have publicly distanced themselves from this
denial-of-service bombardment, calling it "crude." Time magazine and other
conglomerate-related outlets are only too willing to repeat these
assessments. But the fact is, this set of crude electronic pipe-bombs
worked. They may be unsophisticated by hackersı standards, un-American by
the FBIıs standards, and un-sportsmanlike by free-market capitalist
standards, but as far as changing public perception about the Internet,
they were, at very least, effective. One would be hard-pressed to find an
investor who did not shudder to think how this well-publicized electronic
assault might effect the emotionally driven value of his stock portfolio. 

Itıs also fascinating to watch how rapidly the victimized Silicon Valley
CEOıs ­ outspoken advocates of "smaller government" and "deregulation" ­
run for protection under Janet Renoıs skirt now that they are under
attack. It will be public funds and resources that keep cyberspace safe
for the techno-libertarians. 

An attack of this nature cannot be condoned. In the end, we all pay for it
both directly and through the inconvenience it brings. Still, it reminds
us of just how much we are depending on the Internet to drive our economy
to new heights, and what is being lost in the process.

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