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Why DDoS Attacks Are the Wrong Way to Honor Aaron Swartz

When internet folk hero Aaron Swartz’s family released a statement blaming the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and MIT for decisions that contributed to his suicide, it was almost inevitable that cyber-vigilante collective Anonymous would react. By Sunday night MIT’s website was taken down by a distributed denial of service, or DDoS, attack – a popular Anonymous tactic that works by overwhelming the host’s server with more requests than it can process. But DDoS attacks make a poor tribute to the freedom of expression and information Swartz championed.

The risk of being downed by a DDoS attack isn’t new, but its adoption as a tool for cyber disruption has raised its profile considerably in recent years. Russian hackers used DDoS attacks to take down Estonian websites in 2007 and hackers most believe to be backed by the Iranian government leveraged malware infected data servers to take out major U.S. banks this past winter.

It’s also a favorite of Anonymous: They let loose DDoS attacks on Paypal in 2010 for refusing to process Wikileaks donations (reportedly causing causing £3.5 million in costs), and used them to take down sites belonging to the hateful Westboro Baptist Church when they picket Sandy Hook victim’s funerals. Members of the group even started a We The People petition last week asking for DDoS attacks to be considered a “legal form of protesting,” arguing DDoS attacks are “no different than any “occupy” protest. Instead of a group of people standing outside a building to occupy the area, they are having their computer occupy a website to slow (or deny) service of that particular website for a short time.”

But occupying an area doesn’t mean that area ceases to exist for others. And while, yes, advances in technology change how we express ourselves, the anonymous claim that DDoS attacks are the protest of the future ignores a simple fact about the nature of the attacks: They are a tool of harassment whose major outcome is censorship.

DDoS attacks make sites inaccessible from the web, potentially silencing the owner and users of a site and causing real economic harm if e-commerce is disrupted. (The latter as evidenced by Paypal’s aforementioned troubles.)  In fact, they even share some elements with the SOPA and PIPA copyright enforcement proposals Swartz fought to oppose: While SOPA and PIPA threatened to take down entire sites for copyright infringements of individual users, a DDoS attack allows the actions of some internet users to silence others. Both fundamentally block freedom of expression.

It’s hard not to admire some of Anonymous’ goals like bringing publicity to rape cases, going after those mocking Sandy Hook families, or protecting the memory of one of the Internet’s most tragic activists. But next time they want to honor Aaron Swartz they should choose a tactic that celebrates his work to build the internet up, not try to tear the place down.

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