Cyberattacks on media companies and governments are part of a growing fight over internet freedom that isn't likely to end soon, an Ottawa researcher and a Montreal-based hacker say.
"This is a pitched battle over the terrain of democracy on networks, freedom of expression in the internet age," said Dwayne Winseck, a professor at Carleton University's school of journalism and communications. "So it ain't gonna stop."
Winseck has been following the recent attacks, including this week's hijacking of the Fox News politics Twitter account. The hackers who committed the attack posted tweets falsely reporting that U.S. President Barack Obama had been assassinated.
Winseck said the hacker activists or "hacktivists" involved in many recent cyberattacks against law enforcement, media companies and other corporations, are largely motivated by opposition to laws and proposed laws that curb the freedom of internet users.
They include the U.S. Patriot Act, which requires U.S. companies to hand over customers' data to law enforcement without notifying the customers, proposed Canadian laws that would force internet service providers to hand over customer data and help law enforcement officials intercept the communications of their customers, and proposed U.S. laws that could require internet service providers to enforce copyright laws against their customers.
Meanwhile, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has expressed his desire to introduce laws to "civilize the internet" — something that activists hear as censorship, Winseck said.
Next year or 2 are crucial
He suggested that more attacks are being launched now because answers to basic questions about how the internet is controlled and what freedom of communication is are being determined by authorities in the next year or two.
Nadim Kobeissi, who runs a secure network for "ethical" hackers, who use their hacking skills to test networks for security weaknesses, said hacker groups like Anonymous have openly expressed their opposition to governments' growing attempts to control the internet.
"There's a sense of danger," he said. "There's a sense of western, first world [governments] trying to pass laws that censor the internet and make the internet vulnerable to surveillance. This is exactly what's causing this backlash."
Kobeissi, a student at Montreal's Concordia University, said he thinks Fox News was attacked in part "because people believe that it supports an internet censorship and definitely supports the U.S. Patriot Act."
Winseck said a list of 40 attacks since March is "chock-a-block" with media companies such as Fox News, Sony, Disney and PBS, along with security companies such as Lockheed Martin, financial companies such as Visa and MasterCard, and law enforcement agencies such as the CIA and the Spanish national police.
Hackers are trying to send a message that those groups are all linked threats to "the open, free flow of information," Winseck said.
In the process, he added, they are exposing average internet users' vulnerability to internet criminals less motivated by political ideals.