On December 6, thirteen defendants pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court to charges related to their involvement in the cyber-attack of PayPal’s website as part of the group Anonymous. In pleading guilty, the defendants admitted to carrying out a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack against PayPal in December 2010.
Ten of the defendants each pleaded guilty to one felony count of Conspiracy and one misdemeanor count of Intentional Damage to a Protected Computer. One defendant pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of Reckless Damage to a Protected Computer, and the remaining two each pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of Intentional Damage to a Protected Computer.
Their motive behind the attack was to protest PayPal’s refusal to process payments for WikiLeaks, the organization behind the publication of a large number of classified U.S. government documents. The plea agreements state that the group Anonymous coordinated and executed DDoS attacks using the Low Orbit Ion Canon tool against PayPal’s computer in retribution for PayPal’s suspension of WikiLeaks’ donation account. Anonymous referred to these coordinated attacks on PayPal as “Operation Avenge Assange."
In a strange twist, Pierre Omidyar, the chairman of PayPal’s parent company eBay, made a public appeal for leniency on punishing these defendants. In an editorial that he stressed was his personal and not corporate opinion, Omidyar wrote "I can understand that the protesters were upset by PayPal's actions and felt that they were simply participating in an online demonstration of their frustration. That is their right, and I support freedom of expression, even when it's my own company that is the target."
Omidyar calls himself a soon-to-be publisher and says he is deeply committed to press freedoms and free expression. He says that Julian Assange is a publisher and WikiLeaks is a legitimate publication, and “the U.S. government used its power to attempt to silence” Assange.
So let me get this straight. One of the company’s in Omidyar’s control suffered a cyber attack, and he thinks that action is justified because the attack was done in the name of freedom of the press. Hmm, that’s an interesting perspective. This would seem to say that an altruistic motive for breaking U.S. laws justifies those actions.
I should note that PayPal was not the only major business that felt the wrath of Anonymous through various DDoS attacks in retribution for cutting off payments to WikiLeaks. Amazon, Visa and MasterCard were also victims, although they are not mentioned in the court case in which the 13 defendants pleaded guilty. I wonder if the leaders of those companies think that Anonymous was justified in attacking their businesses and causing financial losses and other distress. Probably not.
Mr. Omidyar is certainly entitled to his opinion, but calling a DDoS attack against a major corporation “a demonstration of frustration” is out of whack. There are legal ways to protest, and this just isn’t one of them. In my opinion, I’m glad the defendants were brought to justice.
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