December 22, 2010, 4:57 PM — Computer attacks launched against sites run by human rights and dissident media groups threaten to knock free speech off the Web, a new report warned this week.
The study conducted by Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society showed that distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks frequently knocked such sites offline.
Of the sites surveyed by the center, 62% were victimized by DDoS attacks in the last 12 months, and 61% experienced unexplained downtime.
DDoS attacks -- the kind pro-WikiLeaks activists fired at companies that withdrew services from the controversial group -- are launched from hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of computers simultaneous, or nearly so.
The aim: Flood the servers that host a site with bogus requests, or dupe that server into thinking it's overwhelmed. The result: The site goes black, or is pulled from the Web by its hosting provider to protect other sites from being crippled.
"Human rights and independent media sites are under constant attack," said Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at the Berkman Center and one of the authors of the report, in an interview today. "DDoS attacks make it harder than ever for these groups to keep an online presence."
The Berkman Center dug up media reports of 140 DDoS attacks against more than 280 different human rights and dissident sites in the 12 months between September 2009 and August 2010, likely only a fraction of the actual numbers, said Zuckerman, as many go unreported.
Zuckerman's team also polled more than 300 human rights and independent media sites around the world, and convinced 45, or 14% of the total, to talk about DDoS attacks.
Of the groups that responded, almost two-thirds (62%) had been hit with a DDoS attack in the last year, while slightly fewer (61%) said that their sites had experienced unexplained downtime for their domains.
According to the Berkman Center, there was a "particularly high prevalence" of attacks against sites in Burma, China, Egypt, Israel, Iran, Mexico, Russia, Tunisia, the U.S. and Vietnam, with groups targeted both from within their own borders and from outside their countries.
The center's report highlighted multiple, sustained DDoS attacks against Novaya Gazeta, Russia's most liberal independent newspaper; attacks aimed at a Vietnamese organization protesting bauxite mining in that country; ones launched by the so-called "Iranian Cyber Army" against the Iranian government opposition site mowjcamp.com; and others conducted by a hacker who calls himself "Jester" against sites he said promoted Islamic Jihad.