Cyber war shows Net's vulnerability

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Sun Media, Friday, December 10, 2010

It was Oliver Wendell Holmes who famously wrote in a U.S. Supreme Court judgment that "the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic."

What would Justice Holmes make of the WikiLeaks document dumps and the subsequent cyber war declared by hackers supporting the web site's founder Julian Assange, now in jail in London pending extradition to Sweden on unrelated rape charges?

These self-described cyber-anarchists have been hacking into corporate websites of companies such as Visa, Mastercard and PayPal, the online payment service, which have stopped processing donations to WikiLeaks. Others, such as Yahoo and Amazon, which have declined to host WikiLeaks on their own websites, have also been targeted by anonymous hackers.

As is inevitably the case with free-speech activists, they are concerned about their own freedom of speech, not yours. Nor are they concerned with compromising security of the U.S. and its allies, including Canada, to say nothing of putting diplomats and soldiers in harm's way.

But the cyber war against these companies, in retaliation for cutting off WikiLeaks, takes the anti-social behaviour of these "hactivists" to another level. It also dramatically underscores how vulnerable the Internet is to attack by ruthless and unscrupulous criminals, and how the world urgently needs an enforceable cyber-security protocol. As retired Canadian diplomat Paul Meyer notes in the current issue of Policy Options, the UN has been talking about it for a decade without getting it done (see

These pirates of cyberspace are no different than those on the high seas off the Horn of Africa, swooping in on innocent ships and disrupting international trade and commerce.

Private companies are not public utilities, such as your hydro-electric provider. They are under no obligation to do business with you. The hacking into Visa and MasterCard compromises their global services and reduces their profits. Who do they see about that?

If they were bending to pressure from the U.S. government to cut off WikiLeaks, that's still a form of free speech and association. What is wrong with siding with their own government against an organization that has declared war on it? Nothing.

Even the prosecutors of Assange in the U.K. and Sweden have come under cyber attack for having the effrontery to prefer extradition and rape charges against him. He is portrayed by his defenders as a political prisoner held on trumped-up charges. And the disruptive activities of hackers seeking revenge on his behalf have been portrayed by one of his supporters as "the modern equivalent to a lunch counter sit-in."

So now Julian Assange is Martin Luther King. Well, perhaps in the sense that he is potentially a martyr for his cause. Given the number of security services that wouldn't mind if he had an accident, jail is probably the safest place for him.

Is Assange some kind of hero? For his disciples he is undoubtedly a courageous advocate of freedom of information and transparency in government.

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