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01 Feb

Picking sides as internet divide widens

On Thursday 26 January Anonymous launched a DDoS attack of 300.000 hits per second on the European Parliament’s website, swiftly downing it. The EP hit came soon after the Czech and Polish governments suffering similar attacks, only the latest public institutions to get caught up in internet brawls and ending up with their sites trashed.

What has occasioned the latest string of attacks is the recent advances of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement – an international treaty designed to entrench the enforcement of intellectual property rights on a range of physical and digital products, and which, according to its critics, will curb the fundamental liberties that have helped make the internet the free and bustling place it is today.

The agreement has been opposed in the streets as well as online, and has led to big divisions in the European Parliament – set to vote on the agreement in June – where the parliamentarian responsible for the file recently threw in the towel, accusing member states and conservatives of staging a ‘charade’ to push the agreement through to adoption.

The row over ACTA forms part of long-running faultline between individual freedom and privacy on one hand and property rights, confidentiality and security on the other. These days, battles break out more frequently and drawing in an ever greater number of participants.

New entrants to the fight either pick their side or risk catching some of the cross-fire anyway. In a related saga, the row over the proposed American Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), the directors of Wikipedia, seemingly a cooperative realm of enlightenment where only pedantics fight, staged a 24 hour blackout in protest against the bill, alongside Google and other sites.

This, if anything, is a sign of a hardening front between the internet libertarians and the law-and-order minded. Many other big players on the web try to stay out of the heat and avoid being drawn into conflicts where they have much to lose. Amazon and several credit card firms found themselves caught up in the tussle between the US State Department and the Wikileaks whistleblowing website.

Predictably, their websites were soon hit by DDoS attacks as well as boycotts – underscoring the risks associated for by-standers and intermediaries that take sides (in this case, with the US State Department).

“Many other big players on the web try to stay out of the heat and avoid being drawn into conflicts where they have much to lose.

The opposite example is how the mainstream newspaper titles that worked with Wikileaks were burned when the whistleblower website dumped an unredacted cache of diplomatic cables on the web – reflecting rather badly on the newspapers that had been handling and publishing tranches of the cables up till that point. Both cases illustrate the unpredictable risks to reputation and business of pairing up with one side of the divide.

This much is clear: If the recent raid on the European Parliament’s website was ugly, the coming months are not shaping up to be any prettier. While the SOPA slumbers on the backburner in the US Houses of Congress, the upcoming ACTA vote in Strasbourg will be for a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ from the MEPs – setting the tone of any debate in the run-up.

Even its opponents say that some of the most widespread criticisms are misleading or overblown – yet at the end of the day, such moderates have no choice but to fall into line with the straight nay-sayers. Circumstances, escalating tactics and shear bloody-mindedness appear to have taken the conflict between the libertarians and the enforcers to a new level, as frontlines are drawn up for a summer showdown in Strasbourg.

Last modified on Saturday, 12 May 2012 14:32
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Jonatan James Thompson

Jonatan James Thompson is a Cambridge graduate with a Master in European Affairs from Sciences Po Paris.

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