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Updated: December 13, 2010 20:21 IST

Toppling giant firms online

IANS
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A pile of MasterCard and VISA credit cards on display. File photo
AP A pile of MasterCard and VISA credit cards on display. File photo

How many people does it take to topple VISA’s website - a company that can process 10,000 transactions per second? Just 2,000. That’s how many were needed to overwhelm VISA.com.

The actual damage was relatively minimal since credit card transactions take place on a separate system, but for ‘Anonymous’, the online collective that coordinated the attack, and those on PayPal and Mastercard, it was an unparalleled propaganda coup.

While Anonymous has been described as a group of expert hackers, this kind of “distributed denial of service attack” (DDoS), in which thousands of computers repeatedly visit the target website is a relatively simple operation.

It just requires volunteers to download and run a piece of software that does all the work, reports the Telegraph.

With more and more of our lives spent online, virtual protests like those by Anonymous - who were carrying out “revenge” attacks on companies that had withdrawn support for WikiLeaks - make a correspondingly bigger impact.

In the past, even a large protest by tens of thousands might struggle to make a few headlines for a single day, but now a small number of online activists can block websites and organisations used by hundreds of millions of people globally.

But would people still protest if they weren’t anonymous? Perhaps not quite with the same confidence or disregard for the law, but the recent protests against tax avoidance and tuition fees were all organised out in the open using Facebook and Twitter, with activists using their real names and profiles.

Even members of Anonymous were willing to put themselves on the line when they organised protests in the real world against Scientology, with most not wearing masks.

Anonymity isn’t necessary or even desirable when it comes to the new wave of direct-action protests.

These new online tools have traditionally served two purposes; first, to make money for their Silicon Valley creators, and second, to distribute a wide range of otherwise time-consuming and tricky processes, from setting up social groups (Facebook) to publishing (Twitter and blogs) and receiving payments (PayPal).

So imagine the fury when Facebook and Twitter removed Anonymous’ profiles, and Amazon and PayPal ditched Wikileaks.

People had thought that these companies shared their ideal of the internet as being a place for unfettered free speech and commerce, whereas in fact these internet giants were only interested in free speech insofar as it didn’t interfere with commerce.

Of course, Anonymous created replacement profiles just a few minutes later.

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