The net strikes back

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 14 February 2000

I know it’s wrong. I’m not supposed to get my thrills this way. Still, the recent spate of hacker attacks on major American corporate Web sites brings a smile to my face - and to the faces of almost everyone I speak to about it.

Why should we get so much pleasure from what amounts to an intentional and vicious campaign of cyber-terrorism?

Because it’s refreshing, that’s why.

Don’t get me wrong: However much I’d like to, I can’t condone cyber-terrorism. In the long run, we all pay for it. But the mere fact that our initial response is not fear, but rather perverse joy, means that on some level we resent the companies that now dominate our information space.

Over the last few days, a rather simple program has temporarily paralyzed the most established and profitable Web sites in the world. The attack program works by asking the target Web site for more information than it is capable of dispensing. With all its resources tied up, the Web site is forced to deny service to the millions of users who want access. The site goes down.

This digital molotov cocktail was distributed widely on hacker bulletin boards, so the perpetrator could be anyone, or even different hackers working independently. First, they incapacitated the most popular Web site in the world, the Yahoo search engine, which went down for hours as engineers struggled to restore order. Then, they hit Amazon, CNN, eBay and

These are not randomly chosen Web sites. The hackers didn’t attack schools, charities or communities. They attacked commerce. Why?

Those of us who were enjoying the Internet back in the ’80s and early ’90s remember a time when this technology was about communication. Businesses weren’t even allowed on the Net.

In those days, the interactive mediaspace felt like a cross between a college campus and the Wild West. It was a level playing field, where the size of your computer and the contents of your wallet meant nothing.

The Internet changed the way people thought about media and power. The Net didn’t feel like a particularly “safe” place - but since when are revolutions safe?

The introduction of business to the Internet changed all that. Corporate behemoths ignored the indigenous Net population as they colonized our space.

Companies conducting commerce online needed to make the online environment more secure - in reality and in appearance. They’re asking for our credit-card information, after all.

The look and feel of the Internet changed as users were converted into consumers. Buy more, talk less. This is not a playground, they meant to say; this is business.

“Technology has changed not only the way people do business; it has changed the way criminals do business too,” U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno said in a press conference Wednesday, contextualizing the attacks in the prevailing American parlance of commerce. Her cause-and-effect analysis is only slightly off. Business has changed the way people do technology, and the technologists are fighting back.

This week’s attacks prove that the Internet is not as impenetrable as the opaque interface of the World Wide Web might suggest. It reminds us that the online universe was developed with public funds and that corporate America has been getting a free ride on a civic highway. They are guests, not landlords.

Instead of looking for ways to shore up their defenses, perhaps these companies should consider why they are under attack.