Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Piling On

January 2011

By Mike Gould

On the Internet, everyone knows if you are an idiot. And they are not afraid to tell you so, and to spread the word to the far corners of the CyberSphere (if a sphere can be said to have corners). There, other concerned citizens can mob up and join the melee, burying the target under heaps of scorn, satire, and other forms of digital derision.

Similar to the flash mob, which I wrote about last year (URL below), such efforts can range from the ridiculous to the felonious, and that is our topic this month.

In Which a Goose is Cooked
Our first instance of this was the recent Cook's Source Magazine (CSM) debacle last November. Run by a woman named Judith Griggs, Cook's Source was a print magazine that lived by copyright theft. Griggs would troll the Web for recipes and articles, and copy and paste them into her publication, completely ignoring the copyright notices posted with the purloined material.

A blogger named Monica Gaudio found one of her copyrighted articles on the CSM site, and wrote a polite note to Griggs requesting payment in the form of a donation to her favorite journalism school. Griggs responded with a smarmy note that ended with:

"...honestly Monica, the Web is considered 'public domain' and you should be happy we just didn't 'lift' your whole article and put someone else's name on it!"

To the uninitiated, the above is completely incorrect. Copyright is copyright and theft is theft.

Gaudio mentioned this in her blog, and the affair went viral. Within days the CSM website was hacked, and their FaceBook page was taken over by hundreds of outraged bloggers posting often hilarious commentary. This attracted the attention of the media (I learned of it from reading BoingBoing.net, my favorite blog) and the whole thing ballooned into a wide-ranging discussion of copyright, arrogance, and comedy.

Pitchforks and Torches
Things got nasty when the mob targeted the advertisers in the magazine, small business people in Sunderland, MA. Most of the advertisers pulled their ads when they learned that the magazine was based on plagiarism, but some got caught in the crossfire and had to put up with endless emails and phone calls.

Griggs finally responded with a lame semi-apology, and then folded her magazine. Probably just ahead of being sued by all the people she had ripped off, including Martha Stewart, the Food Network, and even Walt Disney. This last was a fatal mistake: as one blogger (tubebender) put it:

"...Disney is well known for both animation and litigation, but mostly litigation. You don't mess with the Mouse. M-I-C see you in court K-E-Y Why? Because we sued you. M-O-U-S-E

All this could have been avoided if Griggs had taken the time to consult an attorney before setting up her magazine.

Truth and Consequences
Which brings us to l'affaire WikiLeaks. Not much to laugh about here, but this is an instructive lesson in the limits and consequences of spontaneous Internet uprisings.

To review, a globally-based organization called WikiLeaks (WL) is dedicated to removing the secrecy by which governments cloak their actions from their citizens. They exist to give whistleblowers a place to post content online.

I'm not going into any kind of analysis of WL and the propriety of their releasing war-related materials. My interest here is the reaction to their efforts and the reaction to that reaction.

It was revealed that WL was hosted on servers belonging to Amazon.com. At the request of the US government, the site was taken down. Then PayPal, Visa and Mastercard announced that they were pulling their services from the mechanism that allowed people to donate to WL and to raise funds for the defense of the editor-in-chief of WL, Julian Assange. The Swiss bank where Assange does his personal business froze his account, and the pile-on continues as this is written (Dec. 2010).

When Bloggers Attack
This has enraged the online community sympathetic to WL, notably the denizens of 4chan's "Anonymous" group. This is an anarchic message board, whose members are also noted for their long-running attacks on the Church of Scientology and other groups that seek to censor the Internet.

The Anonymous group decided to start "Operation Avenge Assange" and started attacking PayPal, Visa, Mastercard, and Amazon, as well as the Swiss bank Assange used. Their weapon of choice is the DDOS, the Distributed Denial of Service attack. DDOS is a hard-to-defend-against means of Internet warfare, usually employed by zombie botnets in the unknowing employ of evil-doers, usually Russian or Eastern European mafia.

In a DDOS attack, the servers of the victims are overwhelmed with millions of page requests from multitudes of compromised computers. Imagine your business phone tied up with hundreds of automated robo-callers - that's a DDOS.

The unique thing about this attack is that the computers running it are under the control of their users, who have installed specific software to run the attack. The software is called [um, redacted - I don't want to encourage the use of this] and was developed by 4Chan hackers. It is available online for Windows, Macs, and Linux. That's right, anyone with a bunch of computers can attack any server with free software. The mind buckles.

The attacks have had variable success. They shut down the PayPal site (but not the backend pay processing) for a while, and had some impact on the credit card sites, but nothing too Earth-shaking. Amazon shrugged off the attacks, as any system built to withstand the onslaught of Christmas shopping can deal with an amateur DDOS with ease.

The other interesting thing about these attacks is the revelation that the attackers' IP addresses are bundled into the attacking messages, so authorities will be able to trace the attackers and deal with them long afterwards. Should be an interesting fight.

As of this writing, the attacks continue, events unfold, and the Internet continues to grow in ways no one could have foreseen. We're in for a bumpy ride.

Flash Mobs:
http://mondodyne.com/b2b/smbiznet.139.shtml

Cooks Source FaceBook:
http://www.facebook.com/CooksSourceMagazine

Mike Gould was a mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Training/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of the FacTotem constellation, builds lasers into lunchboxen, performs with the Illuminatus Lightshow, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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