E-Bombs Away! Protest, Panic, and the Politics of Packet Monkeys


WASHINGTON—”Cyberterrorists” launch an infowar. “Vandals” attack the Web. “Hackers” are on the loose. Anyone who read last week’s newspaper headlines got a crash course in media hysteria. It was the Web’s first fumble. When hackers slowed service on major dot-coms, The New York Times panicked, CNN beamed coverage around the clock, and Clinton called a meeting. But for all the soundbites and fury, nobody discussed the political meaning of what was, after all, the first organized attack against e-commerce in the Web’s history.

For a number of historians, cyberculture chroniclers, and activists, the real importance of the e-bombs lies in what they reveal about the tension between hackers and merchants on the Web. Historian Michael Kazin, for one, characterized the attackers as “direct descents of Abbie Hoffman.”

So far, the only credit claimed has been anonymous. One posting on a hacker website said the attacks were meant to “scare” Internet investors. Another report says that the first e-bombs sent by these so-called “packet monkeys” contained anticommericial communiqués. No one knows what to make of these reports. But whatever the motives involved, disabling e-commerce sites can logically be read as a protest against the “strip-malling of the Internet,” as some digerati are now fond of saying.

“The class resentment aspect is so obvious,” says Bruce Sterling, author of The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier. “It’s a lot like the World Trade Organization thing, where people were wandering around in pepper gas and people across the country started thinking, gee, why would anyone possibly be against world trade as we know it? In this case, it’s like, how could anyone possibly resent e-commerce, which is about a bunch of superrich guys with stock options up the wazoo more or less taking over the Web?”

Perhaps it’s by design that the sites hit embody the holy trinity of the new information based economy—capital, data, and communication. As the Seattle protests against the WTO showed, the way this economy distributes resources is highly contentious.

“Stopping a major multilateral trade round and these raids on the Internet are both announcements that the very foundations of globalization are not, despite their contrary billing, inevitable, or unchangeable,” says Lori Wallach, who used her position as Director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch to help organize the Seattle protests against the WTO. “Whether or not the folks behind these raids had that intent, they do increase the understanding among people that [Internet commercialization] should not be taken for granted.”

After all, eBay and revolve around not the exchange of ideas but the acquisition of crap. Etrade is all about making money by day trading. ZDNet provides a stream of “news” stories about how to make even more money. CNN may rise above the others as a global gatekeeper and image maker, but one can’t help wondering how deeply market considerations will shape its approach to news, especially after the AOL-Time Warner merger. Yahoo may be an e-saint, but underneath the halo is a tarnished monument to cybercapitalists who’ve eschewed philanthropy. Amazon may hype an “information is power” paradigm, but it’s also ground zero for constructing consumer profiles. Add it all up, and there’s reason enough here for disappointment and even, perhaps, rage.

“All these sites use the kind of upbeat approach to global e-commerce when there’s this dirty stuff going on behind the scenes to mine data, and swap and sell data—it’s unbelievable how many products they’re cheerfully pushing on you based on logging your every click,” says John Young, whose Cryptome site is required reading for afficiandos of the cyberspooky. “Protesting this would be a perfect reason to attack those sites. Anything that attacks the commercialization of the Net is all right with me, and I’m not alone in believing this.”

This anarchic thrill is not limited to cypherpunks. A few Silicon Valley hot shots interviewed for this article actually praised the attack, albeit off the record. “Not only do you have to admire the skill here, but the irony was delightful, using information to disable access to information,” a leading executive noted. “There’s kind of a Jerry Rubin-Andy Warhol quality to it that gives it a nice touch.”

Tell that to the cybercops. Ken Bass, an ex-Justice Department lawyer who defended cryptography icon/PGP creator Phil Zimmerman, wants blood. “Whoever did this ought to spend some time in a federal facility,” he says. “There were people who lost sizable sums of money here, and that is not socially acceptable vandalism.” Bruce Sterling echoes the point. “Ebay is a virtual community,” he says, “and there are people making modest livings selling left-handed bottlecap openers there—I don’t see where whoever did this gets off appointing himself a politically correct czar to break up the livelihood of strangers and denying them the right to communicate.”

Yet, adds Sterling, it would be a mistake to ignore what the site attacks illuminate: “The Internet was never designed to have things worth $50 billion on it—it was designed to be egalitarian and connect people with everyone else.” The Web did that, but in short order the egalitarian dream gave way to market realities. As political scientist Benjamin Barber writes in A Place for Us, his 1998 treatise on civil society, “First radio, then television, then cable were initially advanced as great new democratizing civic technologies in the public interest. . . . Each in its turn grew into the commercial, privatized medium we know today, in which the public interest in civic culture, public education, and civil and political debate is marginalized and in which commercial selling and entertainment are front and center.”

One party that may benefit from the Web’s new look is Bill Clinton, who eagerly takes any attack on business as grounds for increasing Web surveillance. Already, Clinton has called a meeting to bring law enforcement and corporations together, and more spending on net spy technology can’t be far behind, whether big business wants it or not.

“If someone in Congress wants to pass mandatory outgoing address verification, they’d likely end up in a room with a bunch of us saying, ‘Who the fuck made you a black-belt engineer?’ ” says a senior Silicon Valley executive. “That would be just one more use of computing capacity and bandwidth that isn’t there, and all it would do would slow the whole Web down. And right now, Congress is scared shitless of messing anything on the Web up, because a lot of people up there believe that part of the reason the economy is going so well is because of not regulating the Internet.”

So was this—by intention or default—a new front in the war against commerce on the Web? “It certainly was a form of disruption that inconvenienced people,” says Wharton Business School professor Edward Herman, who’s been writing about both the global economy and terrorism for years. “But, since we’ve seen no explicit political message yet, that makes me wonder if these attackers really are what I would call consciousness raisers. But I certainly wouldn’t put this in the class of ‘terrorist.’ If it was an act of protest, they were protesting something that needs protesting.”