On November 28, 2010, Wikileaks, along with the New York Times, Der Spiegel, El Pais, Le Monde, and The Guardian began releasing documents from a leaked cache of 2,51,287 unclassified and classified US diplomatic cables, copied from the closed Department of Defense network SIPrnet. The US government was furious. In the days that followed, different organizations and corporations began distancing themselves from Wikileaks. Amazon WebServices declined to continue hosting Wikileaks’ website, and on December 1, removed its content from its servers. The next day, the public could no longer reach the Wikileaks website at wikileaks.org; Wikileaks’ Domain Name System (DNS) provider, EveryDNS, had dropped the site from its entries on December 2, temporarily making the site inaccessible through its URL. Shortly thereafter, what would be known as the “Banking Blockade” began, with PayPal, PostFinance, Mastercard, Visa, and Bank of America refusing to process online donations to Wikileaks, essentially halting the flow of monetary donations to the organization.
Wikileaks’ troubles attracted the attention of anonymous, a loose group of internet denizens, and in particular, a small subgroup known as AnonOps, who had been engaged in a retaliatory distributed denial of service (DDoS) campaign called Operation Payback, targeting the Motion Picture Association of America and other pro-copyright, antipiracy groups since September 2010. A DDoS action is, simply, when a large number of computers attempt to access one website over and over again in a short amount of time, in the hopes of overwhelming the server, rendering it incapable of responding to legitimate requests. Anons, as members of the anonymous subculture are known, were happy to extend Operation Payback’s range of targets to include the forces arrayed against Wikileaks and its public face, Julian Assange. On December 6, they launched their first DDoS action against the website of the Swiss banking service, PostFinance. Over the course of the next 4 days, anonymous and AnonOps would launch DDoS actions against the websites of the Swedish Prosecution Authority, EveryDNS, Senator Joseph Lieberman, Mastercard, two Swedish politicians, Visa, PayPal, and amazon.com, and others, forcing many of the sites to experience at least some amount of downtime.
For many in the media and public at large, Anonymous’ December 2010 DDoS campaign was their first exposure to the use of this tactic by activists, and the exact nature of the action was unclear. Was it an activist action, a legitimate act of protest, an act of terrorism, or a criminal act? These DDoS actions – concerted efforts by many individuals to bring down websites by making repeated requests of the websites’ servers in a short amount of time – were covered extensively by the media. This coverage was inconsistent in its characterization but was open to the idea that these actions could be legitimately political in nature. In the eyes of the media and public, Operation Payback opened the door to the potential for civil disobedience and disruptive activism on the internet. But Operation Payback was far from the first use of DDoS as a tool of activism. Rather, DDoS actions have been in use for over two decades, in support of activist campaigns ranging from pro-Zapatistas actions to protests against German immigration policy and trademark enforcement disputes….