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Cyber war rages online between copyright and freedom

The modern internet is a battleground between two competing forces vying for control of how information and media are consumed. Large corporations have a huge stake in the financial opportunities that a closed, monetised system has to offer, while activists and idealists are intent on retaining the free, communal nature of the web.

In recent months a skirmish erupted, serving to illustrate how the battle lines are being drawn in a world where the internet increasingly has real life consequences in shaping our social and political reality.

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It is no secret that copyright giants have been backed into a corner in recent years over the shape and nature of the internet. They have been stubborn in their refusal to adapt to the environment that is shifting around them. Instead, entertainment bodies such as the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) and MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), have not only stuck to their guns, but been aggressively attacking any threats to copyright through various channels, from legal action against individuals to lobbying for more severe legislation against piracy and even Denial of Service (DOS) attacks against “the world’s largest bittorrent tracker” The Pirate Bay.

Despite vast amounts of money and attention, there has been little headway made in reducing piracy through these approaches. Instead they have only served to provoke a response from the illegitimate groups they target.

You may have heard of Anonymous before. If not, I will try my best to explain it. Anonymous is a collective of nameless internet users. It is not an organisation, it is not a group with official members. It is a useful label for a coalition with a shared set of goals and ideals with regards to a free internet. They communicate through various websites (notably 4chan.org), and IRC to loosely direct whatever operation they hope to achieve.

Sometimes their goals are trivial or comedic and sometimes they are politically or at least seriously motivated. Due to the nature of Anonymous, it is difficult to discern when one can attribute a raid or attack to the group as a whole or merely to disgruntled members.

The more political causes attributed to Anonymous have been crusades against Scientology dubbed Project Chanology, and Australian censorship in the form of Operation Titstorm and Didgeridie) as well as Iranian freedom. Anonymous related sites, like 4chan, have also famously tracked down and outed people who have uploaded videos where they abuse or murder animals.

Less nobly, they have also been connected to posting flashing animations to epilepsy support forums en masse in order to induce seizures and uploading as much pornographic material as they can onto Youtube, under the guise of children’s material (e.g. Jonas Brothers music videos).

So how do these two groups connect? Well, as mentioned earlier, the MPAA and other film industry organisations (especially Bollywood) use a company called Aiplex as a sort of cyber-mercenary. Aiplex trawls the web for uploaded copyrighted movies and then issues copyright infringement notices. If the offending content is not removed, Aiplex uses its resources of bots to launch a Distributed Denial of Service attack (DDoS) that puts the site down. This has been used against multiple torrent sites, including The Pirate Bay.

DDoS attacks are not considered acceptable use according to most ISPs and are illegal in many countries, and this strategy is seen by many as the use of pirate tactics against the pirates themselves.

The downside to using such tactics became apparent when Anonymous organised an attack in retaliation.

Using its various sites as a platform, it put out this call to arms:

With large numbers of Anonymous members using the Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC) — a simple piece of software that spams TCP, UDP or HTTP requests to the target IP, they initiated their own co-ordinated DDoS attacks. The first brought down the Aiplex site for over 14 hours, followed by the MPAA site for 21 hours, and then the RIAA for for just over an hour. PandaLabs has a more detailed breakdown of the results.

Near the end of attack, Anonymous released this open letter. The attack was about to continue against the BPI (British Phonographic Industry), but this never occurred. There is speculation that it was stopped by a hacker who disrupted Anonymous communications. Anonymous “members” also admitted that they had to switch IRC servers because of RIAA legal notices.

Opinions on the actions of Anonymous, 4chan and The Pirate Bay have always been divided. Many view them as Robin Hood-style characters, the romanticised pirates, rebels against corrupt and unjust systems or as representatives of a new culture. Others see them as dangerous, unaccountable, juvenile, anarchist and criminal.

In this specific case, it is difficult to tell whether the primary motivation is protest and activism, or merely revenge. No matter what your view is, however, it serves to show that the power and influence of this internet community is growing… and it is increasingly spilling over into the ‘real world’. As one of the organisers of the attacks claimed, “We are seeking to change our way of life outside the basement we are trapped in”.

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