Yahoo's Last Stand

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 February 2000

We may never know exactly who perpetrated the string of attacks on the World Wide Web’s most trafficked sites this week. It could have been international terrorists attempting to destabilize NASDAQ, or even a shady Internet security firm hoping to create a market for its own services. But it’s certainly easy enough to understand the motives for such an outbreak of cyber-sabotage in the context of today’s widespread resentment towards the corporations who have commandeered the Internet.

Numerous programs capable of disabling web sites in precisely the way that Yahoo,, and other companies were paralyzed have been available on public bulletin boards for months. Why would people take the trouble, and even put themselves at risk to distribute these black market tools?

Although media pundits and the Internet’s usual cast of spokespeople have unanimously condemned the “denial of service” tactic that the program employs, the general sentiment on discussion lists and among students I spoke with at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program has been one of amusement and even celebration. While some criticize the hack for its brazen destructiveness, many seem to feel that just such a display of primitive bravado effectively challenges the business community’s assumption that the World Wide Web is an impenetrable safe haven for commerce.

The Internet, we must remember, was developed as a national resource with public funds. While it may have been first engineered with our defense interests in mind, by the early 1990’s the Internet was the province of academics, researchers, and hobbyists. Business was strictly forbidden, and new users were required to agree never to exploit the interactive infrastructure for commercial purposes.

The result was a delightfully unpredictable communications space. The Internet challenged people’s assumptions about their dependence on mass media for information. It allowed any kid in Iowa to express himself in the same size ASCII text as a politician in Washington, DC. The Internet leveled the playing field, and seemed to herald a global conversation in which not only money would talk. It wasn’t a safe place at all, but the online territory’s indigenous population wasn’t looking for safety; they were too busy cherishing open access and newfound power.

By the mid-nineties, as businesses colonized the newly de-regulated World Wide Web, the chaotic character of cyberspace was sacrificed to the priorities of commerce. Secure transactions, brand image and NASDAQ valuations took precedence over uncensored conversation and self-governing community. In practice and in perception, the Internet’s users were converted into consumers.

“Technology has changed not only the way people do business; it has changed the way criminals do business too,” US Attorney General Janet Reno explained in a press conference Wednesday, contextualizing the attacks in the prevailing American parlance of commerce. Her cause-and-effect analysis is backwards. Business has changed the way people utilize technology, and now the more rebellious of those people are fighting back. Double-click and other web businesses have no qualms about planting cookies their visitors’ hard drives - essentially running programs on private citizens’ computers without permission. Apparently, some hackers felt it was appropriate to launch an analogous countermeasure, however illegal and unethical it was.

Most well-known hackers have publicly distanced themselves from this denial-of-service bombardment, calling it “crude.” Time magazine and other conglomerate-related outlets are only too willing to repeat these assessments. But the fact is, this set of crude electronic pipe-bombs worked. They may be unsophisticated by hackers’ standards, un-American by the FBI’s standards, and un-sportsmanlike by free-market capitalist standards, but as far as changing public perception about the Internet, they were, at very least, effective. One would be hard-pressed to find an investor who did not shudder to think how this well-publicized electronic assault might effect the emotionally driven value of his stock portfolio.

It’s also fascinating to watch how rapidly the victimized Silicon Valley CEO’s - outspoken advocates of “smaller government” and “deregulation” - run for protection under Janet Reno’s skirt now that they are under attack. It will be public funds and resources that keep cyberspace safe for the techno-libertarians.

An attack of this nature cannot be condoned. In the end, we all pay for it both directly and through the inconvenience it brings. Still, it reminds us of just how much we are depending on the Internet to drive our economy to new heights, and what is being lost in the process.