"Blogging": The Real Worm Threatening Web "Security"

"Beware. Beware. Watch out for Code Red, the worm that's on its way to eating the Internet." Panic reins. News bulletins relay the warnings.

Code Red is a virus, or so we were told, that targets Microsoft systems and many Web sites that rely on its servers. Soon, the mighty moguls of the company that should be re-branded "Macrosoft" had lost their aura of invincibility. Gone -- almost as if someone had hit the delete key -- was the arrogance that one sensed in their ranks after the judicial order to break up their company in the name of antitrust and fair competition was overturned on appeal. (That happened not because the decision that Microsoft is a monopoly was wrong or based on false findings, but because Federal Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson gave an interview to explain the complexities of the case to the media. How dare judges exercise their right to free speech! On August 2, a higher court rejected Microsoft's latest appeal to have the case dropped once and for all.

Suddenly, some microserfs seemed to become living exhibits of a new monopoly, this time, the monopoly of fear and dread that haunts people whose lives revolve around technologies they know are vulnerable.

Let us praise the IT wonder-workers for so quickly coming out with a patch to serve as a techno-fix for Code Red. Once that was announced, the threat had been officially "minimized," a comforting word attributed to "security officials."

OK, world, stand down! Bill Gates, you can come out of your bunker now.

Is it really over? Apparently not quite. On August 2, Neil Clark, director of the Internet Data Center (IDC) operations of Grid Balance, an Internet infrastructure firm, warned: "Anyone who is using Microsoft IIS is vulnerable to the Code Red virus." According to this firm, which, like its competitors, uses crises like these to pitch for new business: "Code Red has caused about $1.2 billion in damage to networks since its release July 12, which is less than the nearly $9 billion the Love Bug virus caused; however, it was slightly more than the $1 billion in damage the Melissa virus caused in 1999. Research shows the cost of clean-up and monitoring systems for Code Red runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars and a half billion dollars in loss of productivity." I can't believe Mr. Clark is unhappy about the lucrative opportunities that await, especially as new variants seem to be popping up.

Unexpectedly, a day after the Code Red scare first surfaced the BBC came out with a debunking report from the Net monitoring firm Keynote, which said that the Code Red virus "was never a danger to the Internet, despite predictions to the contrary by the FBI and security experts. The disruption of the Net initially blamed on the worm was actually caused by a Baltimore tunnel fire which melted key Net cables and left many Web companies struggling to swap data." Incredible, but true. Yet never ones to let the facts get in the way of a good story, some outlets jumped on the worm story the way Hollywood promotes its thrillers. Other journalists were scrambling for their own spin. New York's NPR station, WNYC, featured Michael Lewis, author of "Next: The Future Just Happened," telling tales of the worldwide hacker underground. American kids, he said, use the Net to make millions. British kids become hackers to bring down capitalism.

This is wrong, insists IDC's Clark. "Hacking involves a small step first, which can be monitored and detected by security software. E-mail viruses are the biggest concern right now," he notes. "Some e-mail macro viruses can cause damage without even downloading the file."

That said, let's go back to that prototypical British hacker for a moment, the one who allegedly wants to hack capitalism out of existence. His presence speaks to another virus and a rarely discussed war within the war for the future of the Internet.

It's not a virus threatening Microsoft, but, rather, Microsoft itself threatening diversity on the Web. "Worldwide Web Domination," a new Industry Standard report by David Lake, catalogues the reach of this one company, which boasts that 45 percent of the top five Web sites in 26 countries are affiliated with Microsoft. Microsoft supplies 86 percent of the Web browsers in use worldwide, with most set by default to open to its home page (59 percent of people surveyed by CyberDialogue say they have never changed that destination). "Now one quarter of all minutes spent online in the United States go to just three firms: America Online, Microsoft and Yahoo," Lake writes. Microsoft currently ranks only third in that lineup in the U.S., but it is number two worldwide and is, as Lake puts it, a "global powerhouse."

And make no mistake, this global powerhouse is on one side of a growing conflict: corporate technologies offering prepackaged content and top-down control anchored in a handful of mega-companies versus a growing, grassroots-oriented, audience-determined content stream facilitated by new technologies of participation.

Today there are many alternatives to corporate-controlled and -supplied content. For some time now, the most innovative online content has been found on weblogs, "an individual's log of the Web or a diary of Web pages to recommend to others," as The Guardian defines the term. Weblogs, or "blogs," allow for constant updating and interactive conversation. As one site explains: "A weblog is kind of a continual tour, with a human guide whom you get to know. There are many guides to choose from, each develops an audience, and there's also camaraderie and politics between the people who run weblogs, they point to each other, in all kinds of structures, graphs, loops, etc." The indymedia sites (indymedia.org) are built around this democratizing approach. I even write one here on MediaChannel.org. So, I guess that makes me a "blogger" as well as a news dissector.

Weblogs ... And What Happens Next

MIT's Media Lab has created a tool for indexing the most popular hypertext links across thousands of such weblogs, with ambitious plans to turn it into a resource for the mass media. They call it a Blogdex. It functions like a search-engine spider that goes to 9,000 weblogs a day finding hypertext links. Those links are then ranked in terms of popularity.

More important, blogging is also becoming a new form of participatory journalism. For example, MediaChannel advisor Greg Palast, a correspondent for London's Observer and the BBC, mobilized fellow bloggers on Salon's Table Talk to help him investigate voting abuses in Florida. His weblog now features a Hold the Media Accountable Campaign. Weblogs not only offer an outlet for commentary on the news, but in some instances become a source of news, according to the Online Journalism Review. Even mainstream news sites like MSNBC are asking their visitors to pick top news stories in a "You Be The Editor" study. And not to be outdone, PR firms are also jumping into the blogging pit.

Why isn't this phenomenon getting more attention? Perhaps because it isn't just about gloom and doom and buying things. Perhaps because it doesn't serve the financial interests of giant firms like Microsoft or even most large, traditional news organizations, which tend to think that freedom of the press can only mean top-down communication.

Guess what? That's no longer the case.

A Virus You Should Spread!

Don't tell anyone: There's a virus you can help spread on the Web, a virus promising real information, free expression and political debate. You can get into the act by joining the "bloggertariat," the growing number of people who want interaction instead of propaganda.

This is a trend that the self-styled "security specialists" at the FBI and in the private sector haven't categorized as a threat -- yet. But when they do, alarms will start ringing about weblogs' subversive potential. As the commissars in China -- who are shutting down Internet cafes -- have discovered, once people start talking, dangerous ideas start percolating.

Even in a new democracy like South Africa, that just fought for its own freedom, Parliament is discussing a bill that would limit freedom by setting up a system to monitor communications. Read it and weep: "BILL to regulate the interception and monitoring of certain communications; to provide for the interception of postal articles and communications and for the monitoring of communications in the case of a serious offense or if the security or other compelling national interests of the Republic are threatened; to prohibit the provision of certain telecommunication services which do not have the capacity to be monitored; to regulate authorized telecommunications monitoring; and to provide for matters connected therewith...."

Beware "certain telecommunications services."

Alert! Alert! Code Red 2.0. is around the corner and coming our way.

Danny Schechter is the executive editor of MediaChannel.org. His latest book is "News Dissector: Passions, Pieces and Polemics, 1960-2000," from Akashic Books.

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