BISSEX: Fighting the Chill of the Information Age

Online explorations often expose us to viewpoints we would never encounter otherwise; and if ignorance of opinions you don't agree with is bliss, then knowledge of them can be quite the opposite. Many people just grumble when they see something they don't like. Others avail themselves of the Net's vaunted interactive qualities to make themselves heard. They send e-mail, they offer public rebuttals. And sometimes they engage in sabotage.The Institute for Global Communications (IGC), a small Internet Service Provider based in San Francisco, found itself the target of such sabotage last week. In addition to providing Net access to 13,000 customers, IGC also hosts progressive e-mail lists and websites like WomensNet, LaborNet, and EcoNet. Until recently, a site advocating Basque independence was there as well. Then the attacks started. A linguistically and culturally distinct people numbering close to one million and concentrated mostly in northwestern Spain, the Basques have long agitated for independence. As in Northern Ireland, this agitation has sometimes escalated to terrorism. The Basque group ETA, roughly analogous to Ireland's IRA, recently kidnapped and killed a Spanish politician, causing incredible public uproar. IGC had been hosting a website called Euskal Herria Journal which supported the Basque separatist movement and included a page about the ETA. Spanish newspaper El Pais, in reaction to the ETA killing, published news of the IGC site and encouraged Spanish citizens to share their concerns.IGC got hundreds of e-mail complaints, which they have said are appreciated and will be taken into account in reviewing the appropriateness of the site. However, in addition to all these legitimate messages, IGC has been flooded with bogus messages intended solely to disrupt -- hundreds of thousands of them.Known generally as "mailbombing," the tactics used against IGC included huge messages containing nonsense, messages with falsified return addresses, and duplicate messages sent over and over again by automated e-mail systems.Mailbombing is what is known as a "denial of service" attack; that is, its intent is to make the target system unusable. In targeting IGC, the mailbombers crippled the service for IGC's regular customers. This put IGC in a bind. With even loyal customers becoming frustrated with the service interruptions caused by the attacks, IGC knew their business was in jeopardy. On July 18, after a week of apologetic notices to customers and technical struggles against the mailbombing onslaught, IGC took the EHJ site offline. They say the page has been "suspended," a carefully chosen word which unfortunately does little to soften the perception that they have been coerced.A denial-of-service attack is one of the only ways, short of a successful lawsuit or physical intervention, to forcibly shut someone up online. The fact that such attacks can be waged anonymously makes them a popular means of attacking unpopular opinions. The only reason they are not more widespread is that, unlike flinging insults or rocks, they require some technical expertise to implement.IGC acting Executive Director Scott Wikart and Program Director Maureen Mason say that a review of the EHJ site and the ETA page may well bring them to the conclusion that the ETA page does not fit with their mission. Still, they are loath to make such a decision if it is perceived as a concession. They would have preferred having the freedom to make this decision without the pressure of the anonymous attacks. Audrie Krause, director of a San Francisco group called NetAction, called these attacks "vigilante censorship," a characterization with which many will agree. Regardless of how IGC spins their decision, the events of this past week will be remembered by many observers as a demonstration of the effectiveness of denial-of-service bullying. Some of those observers are undoubtedly would-be bullies themselves. The question is not, therefore, "Will this happen again?" but rather "Who will be next?" NOTE: If you're interested in more information about denial-of-service attacks, an excellent source is the Computer Emergency Response Team site (www.cert.org/cert.faqintro.html). Spanish-speakers wanting to know more about the Basque situation from the Spanish point of view can visit El Pais Digital (www.elpais.es).IGC has publicly called for support in their resistance to the vigilantes. Offering such support and condemning the ETA's terrorist acts are not mutually exclusive possibilities. Learn more at the former EHJ website (www.igc.org/ehj/).

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