-Caveat Lector-

Posted at 9:21 p.m. PST Saturday, January 30, 1999

Internet openness cuts both ways

BY DAN GILLMOR
Mercury News Technology Columnist

Last week, an Internet service provider in Dublin, Ireland, was forced to shut
down temporarily after a cyber-attack on its computers. Topping
the list of suspects is the government of Indonesia.

The Internet company was hosting a ``virtual nation'' on behalf of people
who want to end the brutal Indonesian occupation of East Timor, the
eastern half of a South Pacific island the size of Massachusetts. We take
open political discourse for granted in the United States, but in this
case political speech had a price.

If the Indonesian government was pulling the strings, it wouldn't be the first
time a regime tried to control a medium that tends to find ways
around censorship. All over the globe, governments are desperately trying
to limit their own citizens' access to materials deemed
inappropriate or dangerous.

Nor is this the first time a government may have been involved in trying to
suppress a foreign-based Internet site it didn't like. The Spanish
government, by some accounts, tacitly supported an electronic mail-
bombing campaign against a San Francisco Web site that published
material for Basque separatists.

But if the Indonesian regime did mastermind or otherwise play a role in the
hacking of the East Timor site, this cross-border challenge is an
escalation of sorts. For governments and their foes, foreign and domestic,
it's another warning that the Information Age brings new
complexities to some old notions. It raises fascinating, maybe fundamental
questions -- about the nature of sovereignty, authority and more in
the virtual world.

As with other cases of hacking of Web sites, moreover, the incident
highlights how the Internet's basic openness is double-edged.
Decentralization lets information be viewed by anyone, anywhere. It also
creates vulnerability to outside attacks.

A little history: When Portugal decided to cede control of East Timor in
1975, Indonesia invaded and annexed the territory as an Indonesian
province. Widely reported human-rights abuses followed. The protests of
the international community, including the United Nations, have had
little effect -- until last week, perhaps coincidentally, when the Indonesian
government suddenly suggested it might grant independence.

The Internet had played a role in the continuing campaign against the
occupation. There were the usual mailing lists, Usenet newsgroup
discussions and Web sites where advocates and opponents of East Timor
independence promoted their viewpoints.

But the most interesting Web development came about in late 1997, when
an Irish Internet service provider, Connect-Ireland, joined forces with
Nobel laureates Josť Ramos-Horta and Bishop Carlos Belo, who had
been among the most active people in the East Timor freedom
movement. The idea behind their ``East Timor Project'' was to create what
amounted to a virtual nation. To do this they took advantage of the
way Internet domains are created.

A ``top-level'' national domain -- granted by a centralized authority run under
contract with the U.S. government, a system now being revamped
-- consists of a two-letter abbreviation. For example, the United Kingdom
uses .uk, where a Web site might be called website.co.uk (the ``co''
stands for commercial in this example). Only the United States, where the
Internet began, does not have a top-level national abbreviation.

Creating a East Timor top-level domain name, .tp, was a clever political
maneuver by the opponents to the Indonesian occupation. It effectively
established a semi-official presence, though what that really means is open
to interpretation.

In any event, Indonesia's government wasn't amused. A spokesman told the
Irish Times newspaper, with the utter hypocrisy so prevalent in
officialdom, that it had nothing against freedom on the Net. But the
government was ``concerned that this freedom has been misused . . . to
spread a campaign against Indonesia.''

In an explanation on its Web page, Connect-Ireland (www.connect.ie) says the site had 
been probed repeatedly in the year since the domain
was established. But the company wasn't prepared for what happened last week: 
simultaneous cyber-attacks from locations around the globe.

The attacks, apparently designed to bog down the computers, were so
effective that Connect-Ireland was forced to temporarily shut down its
systems. The company says it's upgrading equipment and software to
make the site less vulnerable in the future. Systems administrators
around the world are working together to trace the people responsible,
according to Connect-Ireland. But it's entirely possible the guilty parties
will escape detection.

A Web site that challenges a corrupt or repressive regime may be
perceived as a serious threat by that government. Given the power of
information to be a catalyst for action, it may be an actual threat. That
doesn't make the counter-strike any more legal or righteous, but at least
you can understand the motive.

It's bad enough to shut down an opponent's printing press or radio station
inside one's own nation. It's plain outrageous to cross borders to do
this.

As an act of Web warfare, the East Timor Project had another effect that's
all too common in war: what military people so quaintly call
``collateral damage,'' injury to innocent people and property. Connect -
Ireland's regular customers found themselves without access to their
e-mail and other Internet services. It's better than actually killing people,
though.

Ultimately, regimes will learn the hard way that they can't stamp out
information they don't like, not in the new world of the Information Age.
They'll try, though, in an ongoing arms race. Security holes get plugged
after attacks, and activists find other sites to ``mirror'' the offending
content.

As of Friday, the East Timor Project's Web presence (www.freedom.tp/)
was still out of commission. But the East Timor human rights
movement isn't. That's the most important message.



---------------------------------------

Dan Gillmor's column appears each Sunday, Tuesday and Friday. Visit
Dan's Web page (www.mercurycenter.com/columnists/gillmor). Or
write him (and please include a daytime phone number -- for verification,
not publication) at the Mercury News, 750 Ridder Park Drive, San
Jose, Calif. 95190; e-mail: [EMAIL PROTECTED]; phone (408) 920-
5016; fax (408) 920-5917. PGP fingerprint: FE68 46C9 80C9 BC6E
3DD0 BE57 AD49 1487 CEDC 5C14.

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California Director
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