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ACS NSW Branch

Making Enemies on the Net

This is the text of a talk given by Peter Bowditch to the Internet Special Interest Group of the NSW Branch of the Australian Computer Society on Tuesday 12 October 1999.

Everyone wants a popular web site, with lots of visitors. What happens, however, when you have an unpopular site? I don't mean one where nobody ever visits, but one which upsets or annoys people to the point where they take action against the site. Here are some approaches which were used against or which involved some sites which I have some connection with.

Mail attack

I have a web site called The Millenium Project that I use to list web sites which offend me. The sorts of things listed there are people pushing quack medicine, racism, sexual intolerance and religious bigotry. Someone discovered that their particular form of idiocy was mentioned and announced it on a mailing list. The story was repeated on other related lists and I was soon receiving a steady flow of hate mail. This all fizzled out when it became obvious that I was not going to apologise or change the site and that the only response from me would be to post the complaints on the site. I was lucky because the volume of mail I received was manageable and so was only a nuisance, but this tactic has been used on a large scale against some US sites. In some cases, ISPs have removed domains to prevent the volume of protest mail from affecting system performance.

(As an aside, traffic at my site increased to four times its normal rate while the attack was on, helped by publicity I was generating about my problems. Afterwards it did not return to the original level but has stayed at about three times what it was before. Whoever said "any publicity is good publicity" was right.)

(Update: Another attack was launched against the site in March 2000. This person threatened legal action, subscribed me to mailing lists, sent me weird digital postcards, created false identities in my name and was a general nuisance. He lost. See the story here. This bout of publicity increased site traffic by 500%.))

Creating confusion

In the fight against medical fraud, one of the best known sites is www.quackwatch.com run by Dr Stephen Barrett. Sites have been created at www.quackwatch.org and www.quackwatch.net to confuse surfers (even some of Dr Barrett's supporters were fooled). The .net site just contains one page which redirects visitors to a site belonging to some quack who claims that all doctors are liars, and the .org domain has been taken over by a group of chiropractors who are using it to hold a complete site. The deceptive effect is the same - people looking for one site find another and, at worst, assume the real thing no longer exists.

A similar confusion was created about David Goldman's anti-hate site, www.hatewatch.org. Someone used the address www.hatewatch.com to lead to a site which appeared to be quite reasonable but was actually a mixture of anti-semitism and gay bashing. For a while both the .org and .com sites listed each other as examples of what each didn't like. The .com site was taken over for a while by someone who was complaining about some legal problems he was having, but it now just refreshes to a mad white supremacist site (as does www.hatewatch.net). The differences between the real thing and the impostor are now so obvious that nobody could be fooled.

(Update: The owner of hatewatch.org acquired the domains hatewatch.net and hatewatch.com on 6 March 2000, ending the confusion.)

Possibly the most famous impostor web address is www.whitehouse.com, which doesn't actually put you in contact with the President of the United States.

Domain hijacking

According to some pundits, the third most reviled and despised site on the web is the homophobic www.godhatesfags.com, run by the Reverend Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. (The two most despised sites are Don Black's racist www.stormfront.org and the Zundelsite (www.zundelsite.org)  holocaust denial run on behalf of (but in no way by) Ernst Zundel.)

One day people connecting to the Phelps travesty found themselves looking at a page headed "God Loves Fags". The owners of this site claimed to know nothing about how the change had happened, and were even saying that they thought it was some sort of miracle. The fact that the page contained a mention of the Phelps site and also a disclaimer from their ISP saying they didn't know how it happened strongly suggested that the redelegation was not accidental.

Because this required some planning and the almost certain complicity of at least one ISP, the problem was resolved as soon as lawyers were mentioned. For a while, the God Loves Fags site was forced to carry a link to the IP address of the Phelps site while the domain name servers reloaded the correct target.

This is not a very effective form of attack because it can be resolved so easily and it is very obvious that people have acted improperly (there is no doubt about who really owns a domain name). It is a nuisance to the person attacked, but the publicity may bring in surfers who had never heard of the place.

Content replacement

On September 4, 1999, people connecting to the Ku Klux Klan site at www.kkk.com found themselves looking at the entry screen for Hatewatch.Org (mentioned above). Someone had loaded the pages over the Klan's content. As with domain hijacking, this probably needed the complicity of the Klan's ISP and the situation was corrected very quickly. Interestingly, the complaints and publicity were generated by Hatewatch who saw it as a freedom of speech issue (and probably wanted to make sure nobody thought they did it).

A similar attack happened on the site of one of the major political parties in the last Australian federal election. This form of attack is again of limited effectiveness because it is very easy to fix and can expose the attacker to adverse publicity and even ridicule.

Future problems

All of the attack methods mentioned above can cause difficulties for site owners, but most can be managed or corrected without much problem and the perpetrators of the attacks can usually be easily identified. I am concerned that a new weapon is about to be handed to the attackers. The laws covering Internet content which come into effect in Australia next year can easily become a tool used to restrict free speech. I do not think for a moment that the new law will stop pornography from coming into Australia, and, in fact, I doubt whether it will ever even be invoked to do that. The real danger is that it can be used as an indirect form of censorship of ideas. As an example, someone objecting to The Millenium Project because it draws attention to the lies they are telling about their fake cancer cures could complain that the site contained links to paedophile and racist sites. It is feasible that my ISP could be told to remove the site because of this "offensive" content without ever revealing the true agenda of the person lodging the complaint. (Note that some of the links on this page would be enough to get this site banned.) Lying comes naturally to many of the people featured in The Millenium Project (and in Quackwatch and Hatewatch) so deceptive conduct will not be a problem for them. It will be a tragedy if digital vandals and graffiti artists are given increased power as an unintended consequence of a misguided attempt to protect children from seeing rude words or pictures.


Copyright 1998- Peter Bowditch

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