Published Apr 01, 2000Early in February, some of the most popular online business web sites were taken down for short amounts of time by what are known as "denial of service attacks." A denial of service attack is a way of shutting down a web server by making a large number of requests very quickly so quickly that the server cannot handle it. It's similar to phoning a number so quickly and so often that all anyone else gets is busy signals. These attacks are very hard to defend against; the only way to make a site completely immune is to unplug it. So although CNN, E*Trade, ZDNet and Yahoo were up again in a few hours, a lot of organisations, including the FBI, are very concerned by this action, because it could easily happen again and it cannot be prevented. While many people view these attacks as simple teen pranks (the New Economist portrayed these hackers as angry youth with a grenade in one hand and a can of Krylon in the other), others see it as a reaction to the increasing commercial presence on the internet.
The internet was never intended for commercial use, and many people resent its take-over by business interests. It is very hard to browse the web, and even receive email, without encountering numerous ads. In my opinion, these attacks were intended to send a message to businesses on the internet, and the message is this: respect how the net works if you are going to do business on it.
Here's an example. Late last year, the online toys seller eToys (www.etoys.com) tried to buy the domain name etoy.com from the Zurich-based art group etoy (www.etoy.com). When etoy refused to sell the domain name, eToys obtained a court injunction preventing etoy from operating the name etoy.com. They claimed that the etoy.com domain was similar enough to etoys.com to confuse customers. (They also claimed, falsely, that the etoy site contained pornography and calls to violence.) etoy argued that they had the domain etoy.com first, and didn't see any reason why they should give it to eToys; in fact, they asked that if the issue was confusion over the names, why shouldn't the toy company give etoy the use of etoys.com? Nevertheless, Network Solutions (the corporation responsible for issuing domain names) complied with the injunction, and turned off the etoy.com domain.
Quite simply, eToys was used to traditional marketing and "branding," and with little comprehension of how the internet works. Domain names are not trademarks or brands; domain names are simply names that we humans use in place of series of hard-to-remember IP numbers. They are issued on a first-come, first-serve basis because that is the fairest method. Clearly eToys didn't understand this, and thought that they could take the etoy.com name because they were bigger and wealthier than etoy. The fact is that the name etoy.com has been in existence since 1995, before eToys even existed. The etoys.com name was registered in 1997.
The injunction inspired action against eToys from various activists including RTMark; the organisation that funds sabotage of corporate products (rtmark.com/etoy.html). The action was intended to lower the eToys stock price as much as possible. It included an organised denial of service attack known as a virtual sit-in (www.shmooze.net/~goofy/18.html) on the eToys site from December 15 to 25, 1999. Other people filled the eToys message boards with information about the injunction. The eToys stock price fell; doubtless partly because of the bad publicity the action generated. On January 26, the toy company finally dropped the lawsuit, and use of the etoy.com domain name was returned to etoy.
The etoy message seems to have been received, at least in part. Recently RTMark reported that another company, Autodesk, was trying to shut down the web site The3DStudio.com because it has the same name as Autodesk's product, 3D Studio. RTMark informed everyone concerned that it would help sponsor an attack against Autodesk similar to the one launched against eToys. Autodesk withdrew all threats.
The etoy vs eToys battle has made a point: businesses cannot steal public internet space for their own business use. Says RTMark spokesperson Ray Thomas: "Now e-commerce corporations have a choice: either obtain a legal stranglehold on the internet, so that this kind of defensive reaction is no longer possible, or behave decently towards the humans who use this medium for purposes other than profit."