Hacktivists Stage Virtual Sit-In at WEF Web site

Although the streets of New York City remained relatively subdued while the World Economic Forum (WEF) met here, over 160,000 demonstrators went online to stage a "virtual sit-in" at the WEF home page.

Using downloaded software tools that constantly reloaded the target web sites, the protestors replicated a "denial-of-service" attack, which cripples a web server by sending it more requests than it can handle.

40,000 downloaded the sit-in tool on Thursday, January 31st, the first day of the WEF meeting.

"We're getting hits like we've never had before," WEF communications director Charles McLean reported as the protest began.

By 10 AM Thursday, the WEF site had collapsed, and remained down until late Friday night.

"At first, the [WEF] website got more general traffic than it had experienced before. Then, [the site] had what appeared to be an intentional denial-of-service attack, which made it impossible for people to access content," said Paul Sagan, president of Akamai Technologies, which was called in by the WEF to get its site up-and-running again, and to shield the WEF's web fare from additional protests.

Ricardo Dominguez, co-founder of the Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT), one of the groups that organized the sit-in, called the action a "global ya basta -- enough is enough!"

Despite news reports to the contrary, Dominguez and EDT deny responsibility for closing the WEF site.

"EDT could not have taken the WEF site down," he wrote in an e-mail," I think that something else happened to the WEF URL or, perhaps, the WEF infrastructure is as badly built as the WEF's economic vision during the last 31 years."

Several press accounts complained of the lack of technical sophistication at the meeting, with video feeds and registration databases failing regularly.

Dominguez has led Internet demonstrations for several years. His group grabbed headlines in 1998 for leading virtual sit-ins in support of the Mexican Zapatista rebels at the websites of the Pentagon, the Federal Communications Commission, the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, and the School of the Americas, a U.S. Army training center.

"In our past e-actions, we have never taken a site down or wanted to," he said.

Deliberately shutting down a web site could be construed as hacking, which is theoretically punishable by up to 5 years in the prison and a $25,000 fine.

"The idea is not to destroy or disrupt these [websites]. It's to disturb," Dominguez said. "It's a series of almost immaterial gestures that represent a mass community in protest. It's been [likened] to being pecked to death by a duck."

By being an electronic nuisance, Dominguez hopes to bring media attention to his anti-globalization beliefs.

"We don't have massive PR firms or the ears of The New York Times. So we have to make gestures that are attractive to the media," he said.

This action -- also promoted by groups like RTMark and Federation of Random Action -- did, during a protest period conspicuous in its silence, manage to capture the interest of The Times, among others. But many activists were unimpressed.

"The 'protesters' assaulting the WEF web server are little more than petty fascists who see plurality of opinion as dangerous, and are therefore the lowest of criminals themselves," posted one user to Indymedia.org, an online gathering point for anti-globalization activists.

Another wrote, "You scream to demand your voices be heard, yet you distribute these tools to silence the voices of others? How hypocritical of you."

"Oxblood," a member of the hacker group Cult of the Dead Cow, added, "They use the metaphor of the sit-in. But it doesn't translate. There are no sidewalks in cyberspace. No one walks past you and sees what you are doing. There's no chance to engage the public. The public knows the site is down, but they don't know why."

Other groups staged their own technology-driven protests around the WEF meeting, which brought to the opulent Waldorf-Astoria Hotel over 2,500 corporate and political big-wigs (with a few labor, religious, and environmental leaders thrown in for good measure).

Globalization foes created parodies of the WEF's official site using the "reamweaver" software from online pranksters The Yesmen. Another group called The Bureau of Inverse Technology sporadically hijacked the transmission of New York's National Public Radio affiliate to relay its own radical messages. And The Institute for Applied Autonomy helped protestors avoid the surveillance cameras that have become increasingly pervasive on the New York streets.

During last year's WEF meeting, a hacker group, "Virtual Monkeywrench," stole from the WEF site a private list of 27,000 names -- including former President Bill Clinton and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The list included phone numbers, credit card data, and other personal information of participants.

Dominguez, born in Las Vegas and trained as a Shakespearean actor, began his activist career in the mid-1980's, when "AIDS started killing many of my friends," he said.

In response, he joined ACT-UP, the AIDS organization, and began leading agitprop theater productions.

Inspired by William Gibson, the novelist who coined the term "cyberspace," Dominguez in the early 1990's started teaching himself to code (these days, he's a broadband consultant and well-regarded Internet artist). During that time, he claims, he helped develop a theory of electronic civil disobedience, a theory that was put into practice when the Zapatistas called for a worldwide network of supporters.

Dominguez responded with his electronic sit-ins. He still continues to use the Zapatistas as inspiration for all his political actions.

An online plea to join his most recent protest ended with a rambling, seemingly unrelated Zapatista screed. In 1999, EDT released the sit-in application to the public as part of a "Zapatista Disturbance Developer's Kit."

Later that year, gay activists Queer Nation and Harvard student protestors used the tools to stage their own electronic protests.

Among the Harvard demonstrators was Sasha Costanza Clark, who helped promote the WEF online action. Like Dominguez, he refuses to admit that their activities could have crippled the Forum's online presence.

"I'm surprised the site went down," he said. "I wasn't at all expecting this."

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