Cyber-Bombs Censor Basque Separatists

The much-despised practice of "mail-bombing" has thrown yet another censorship chill across the freewheeling Web.The victim this time is a New York-based group supporting Basque independence in Spain and France -- and the stakes are very high. The organization has actually had its Web site extinguished by its nervous host server, setting a precedent that has panicked Net guardians.The server, the Institute for Global Communications, a 10-year-old nonprofit organization providing Internet services for hundreds of progressive peace, labour, human rights and environmental groups, recently pulled the plug on the Euskal Herria Journal (EHJ).The site included sympathetic references to Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), the armed independence group that has killed hundreds of people over the last 30 years in its struggle for Basque independence from Spain, not unlike the IRA in Northern Ireland.For the last four months, IGC had been getting hundreds of protest letters about the journal from formerly unknown political forces opposing EHJ's support for Basque independence organizations. The communications claimed that the site supported terrorism.Maureen Mason, IGC's program coordinator, notes, "The site also included articles on human rights abuses in prisons in Spain, on the whole history of the Basque independence movement, Basque culture and language, etc., so we decided on the whole that it came within our mission."But in recent weeks the protest -- undoubtedly heightened by last month's kidnapping and killing of a Spanish politician by the ETA -- has been dramatically stepped up.IGC's mail servers have been assaulted with thousands of duplicate messages containing garbage, or one phrase repeated thousands of times.These were automatically programmed by mail-bombing software to be continually sent over and over again from hundreds of different mail relays, with either no return address or bogus, forged addresses. They were then routed through random servers so they would be untraceable.As a result of this massive cyber-onslaught, IGC's member organizations have had their mail tied up. Thousands of users worldwide have been affected, and community network services in several countries have been threatened with disruption.Other forms of harassment have included spamming of IGC staff and member accounts, clogging their online orders page with fake credit-card orders, and threats to employ the same tactics against organizations using IGC services.To many in the online world, this form of electronic aggression is analogous to vandalizing a bookstore to protest a book.Still, the campaign has led to IGC's decision to suspend the EHJ Web site so it can continue to serve the many other individuals and organizations that depend on its services.IGC's Mason admits, "It was the only way to keep our servers running."Anti-censorship organizations around the world, ranging from Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility to the Association for Progressive Communications, are stepping forward to protest this latest attack by cyberspace vigilantes.If it can happen to IGC, it can happen to anyone.They're quick to point out that while writing protest letters or e-mail messages is a legitimate means of expression and protest, the anonymous bombing of a site -- which relies not on the strength of argument but solely on the brute power of technology -- is an illegitimate and undemocratic use of force.Joseba Zulaika, associate professor of anthropology at the Basque studies program at Reno's University of Nevada, says quashing the Euskal Herria Journal only further serves to alienate the Basque movement."Blocking Internet information is the perfect way for the ETA to claim that Spanish democracy is far from a true democracy. This is a perfect example of what happens when you turn a phenomenon into a taboo -- it fosters further violence."This incident is only the latest of a much broader range of attacks aimed at shutting down specific types of political speech. Other examples include attempts by German authorities earlier this year to block access to a Dutch server hosting the radical leftist group Radikal, and the spamming attack on the alt.religion.scientology newsgroup last summer.New York computer consultant and writer Paul Kneisel notes that the mail-bombers are "not young hacker kids or wackos -- it's a concerted political attack by people who are very aware of what they're doing. (They want to) stop the transmission of political views with which they disagree."But the way Kneisel sees it, by suspending the EHJ site, IGC has announced to the world that it pays protection money, ensuring future mail-bombings.Kneisel suggests, "The only way that all of the Internet service providers can stop this is if they start collectively informing such people that a mail-bombing attack does not result in the cessation of the information the mail-bomber is against but rather (in) the spread of it."The only defence, he argues, is for a large number of ISPs to protect themselves collectively against such focused attacks by announcing that if any ISP is attacked, they will set up a mirror (duplicate version) of the site.To that end, IGC has called on the Internet community to provide mirrors of the EHJ site, and has offered a copy of the entire site in one large compressed file to other providers who want to replicate the site on their servers.Mason notes, "The large commercial providers, with all the resources they have, probably could respond to this simply as a security problem. We feel -- both because of our site but also because of our politics -- that it's a political problem. There has to be solidarity among the Internet community against this kind of behaviour."

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