Last Thursday, the Internet became a war zone, replete with acts of force and retaliation.
It all began when the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice took down MegaUpload, a file-sharing site that has exploded in popularity in recent years. With 150 million registered users and 50 million daily visits, MegaUpload accounts for 4 percent of total Internet traffic worldwide. In other words, it’s absolutely massive.
Early reports listed the CEO of MegaUpload as hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz, who is married to singer Alicia Keys. It was later revealed that Beatz was not included in the charges, as laid forth in a 72-page indictment. The company’s founder, Kim Dotcom, is a 38-year-old German eccentric, with a long rap sheet that includes credit card fraud, hacking, insider trading and embezzlement. Last Thursday, a multi-agency task force raided Dotcom’s New Zealand home, seized his property (including $4.8 million in luxury cars), and shut down the file-sharing site.
Naturally, word spread quickly about MegaUpload’s shutdown, and the retaliation was quick and powerful. Anonymous, the populist collective of “hacktivists,” unleashed a firestorm on all of the agencies and corporations that were even peripherally involved. Using their signature Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, Anonymous went after some of their highest-profile targets to date.
Just moments after news broke about the government seizure of MegaUpload, Anonymous sprung into action. In their most unified show of force yet, they took down the websites for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group. They also lashed out at government agencies involved in the raid, crippling the websites of the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Copyright Office, and—most startling of all—the FBI.
While Anonymous has become famous for DDoS attacks, and their ability to bring down very large and secure websites, we saw a new play last week that might mark the beginning of an evolution. The Utah Chiefs of Police Association’s website, UtahChiefs.org, was hacked—not a DDoS attack, which would disable the site for the duration of the attack, but actually hacked—and the MegaUpload logo was posted at the top of the page with a message from Anonymous. “We are Anonymous,” read the statement. “We are legion, we never forgive, we never forget. Expect us.”
Why the Utah Chiefs of Police Association was targeted remains a mystery. The organization doesn’t appear to have played a role in the MegaUpload seizure. But the revelation that Anonymous is capable of posting content on a web page, as opposed to debilitating it with Denial of Service attacks, should be seen as a game-changer.
Speaking with CNN during the attacks, a Department of Justice representative acknowledged the assault. “We are having website problems, but we’re not sure what it’s from.” The MPAA also released a statement in the wake of the attacks, claiming that they were working with law enforcement agencies to find out who was responsible. “Unfortunately, some groups believe that speech or ideas that they disagree with should be silenced. This could not be more wrong. No matter the point of view, everyone has a right to be heard.”
It seems profoundly unlikely that Anonymous views their attacks as an assault on free speech, but one can see a paradox unfolding. In their efforts to take down sites that they feel stifle free speech, they themselves are being painted as the oppressors.
The MegaUpload case appears to be the largest copyright infringement case in U.S. history. How it will unfold remains to be seen, but chances are we haven’t heard the last from Anonymous.
Originally printed in “Pulse,” 01/26/2012.
© Damien Willis, 2012. All rights reserved.