Article originally published in the October/November edition of The Journalist
On Thursday 1 August this year, investigative journalist Andrew Jennings noticed that his website transparancyinsport.org, was not accessible. Jennings, who has done notable work for Panorama, World in Action and Sunday Times Insight maintains the site as part of his ongoing research into corruption in world football. He called his service provider, GreenNet.
They were having problems too, admits system administrator, Ian Macdonald. “I assumed that the cable that brought the internet into our office and connects us with our servers must be down, but a call to our provider, revealed that their systems were down too.” They were not alone. A massive, internet-based assault on a single page of Jenning’s site was underway. At its peak, it froze a substantial chunk of the UK’s web traffic and is thought to have affected, for several hours, up to half of all the internet traffic coming into the UK from abroad.
It took five days for GreenNet to get its services back on line, by which time it was clear that a colossal ‘botnet’ attack, involving thousands of computers, had been mounted by computers in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and China.
“I have had all sorts of threats from over the years, from crooks, lawyers and corrupt Police officers among others, but nothing like this cyber attack, the intention of which was clearly to try and shut me up”, says Jennings, from his home near Penrith, in Cumberland. “It was utterly cowardly – but happily, it will take a lot more than that to get me off a case”.
“A botnet is created by criminals to harness lots of other people’s computers to their own ends”, explains Macdonald. “People often unwittingly let their computers become used in this way by clicking on some kind of a link”. Once the botnet has been created, its operator can direct all the computers under their control to make tens of thousands of requests to a particular website. The result is much the same as all the pedestrians in a city suddenly turning in their tracks to walk towards a particular shop. In seconds, the shop in question would be besieged – soon an entire area of the city would be gridlocked.
Jennings believes that this particular attack came from someone close to an international sports governing body, and has now made a complaint to the Swiss police. It was accompanied by a separate attack on his WordPress blog and several anonymous ‘fishing’ emails that he received, that included zip files which purported to contain damning internal documents from the organisations that are in his sights.
But his experiences are just one of an increasing range of digital-age threats to freedom of expression. “Anyone who thinks that ‘new media’ outlets are not being monitored by the state and the Police – as well as other even less savory types – is in cloud cuckoo land”, says Julian Petley, professor of media at the University of Brunel and chair of the Campaign For Press and Broadcasting Freedom. “Governments, and others, have not been slow to exceed their authority when trying to control new media, either”.
Given that in the past 12 months, more editorial space has been devoted to ‘freedom of the press’ than at any time in the previous decade, the surprise is that its focus has been so narrow. Look beyond Leveson, however, and botnets are by no means the only bogeymen.
On 7 October 2004, a still unidentified person, with a warrant to authorise their actions, walked into the London offices of Rackspace, a Texas-based company that rents server space. Two computers, both used by the pioneering open-platform news service Indymedia, were removed from the building, with the result that 21 Indymedia sites, from Belgrade to Venezuela went off-line. Quite who did this, has never become clear, save that it appears to have been undertaken ‘pursuant to Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty’. The Metropolitan Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation both issued statements to the effect that it was nothing to do with them.
Indymedia’s activist-news approach to news might not be to all tastes – indeed, since its 1999 foundation, even fans concede that it has peaked. Nevertheless, the extraordinary seizure of its servers is illustrative both of the mind-bending complexities of multinational law, and the array of high-tech approach to undermining free expression that are now available. The digital equivalent of smashing a printing press requires not so much as breaking into a sweat.
“People generally assume that the law is a set of rules, when in fact it is a game of poker”, says Mike Holderness, the chair of the European Federation of Journalists Authors Rights Expert Group, who followed the Indymedia case closely. “When you are handed a warrant, issued by a court in Texas, on behalf of an unnamed sovereign state, even the largest, best-staffed organisation might struggle to find the resources and legal understanding to put up a fight. For a small, independent publisher, it is all but impossible – as whoever initiated these proceedings surely knew”.
Wikileaks, publisher of leaked documents, experienced another form of attack. In December 2010, after the publication of a huge tranche of US diplomatic cables, Visa, Mastercard, Bank of Americal and PayPal suspended the transfer of public donations to the site. An official of the later company was reported as saying that its decision came after a letter from the US State Department warning that WikiLeaks was holding documents illegally.
It was catastrophic for WikiLeaks. A statement at the time stated: “We are forced to temporarily suspend publishing whilst we secure our economic survival. For almost a year we have been fighting an unlawful financial blockade. We cannot allow giant US finance companies to decide how the whole world votes with its pocket.” A two-year long legal action forced Mastercard to resume payments to Wikileaks in July 2013.
The challenge to Jennings, Indymedia and WikiLeaks might have been shadowy – that to the News Of The World could not have been more public. In the early summer of 2011 the paper was already facing a storm of bad publicity. The revelation that a private investigator who worked for the title had hacked missing school girl Milly Dowler’s phone messages started a chain of events from which The News Of The World would not recover.
On 4 July 2011 Melissa Harrison (@the_Z_factor) started a discussion about practical ways to damage the title. She directed Tweets at the paper’s advertisers. Soon others joined in – one created a site that automated the process of tweeting companies. Another launched a web page containing the email addresses of the chief executives of the firms concerned. The initiative snowballed and soon blue-chip clients like Ford, Vauxhall, Proctor&Gamble and, Virgin Holidays announced that they would withhold their advertisements from the paper.
On 7 July, News International (as it then was) announced the paper’s closure.
Some, understandably cheered, and while the Twitter campaign was by no means the only factor in the paper’s demise, it was clearly significant. Whatever one might think of the 168-year-old tabloid, however, the means by which it was dealt its final blow clearly has implications for press freedom. Some in the industry have targeting rival’s advertisers for years, of course, to maintain local monopolies. The difference here was that it was conducted in public and by a section of the public. With the model established, a determined, self-selecting group could target any publication that it considers to have breached acceptable standards.
This catalogue represents just some of the more dramatic challenges to freedom of the press in the UK. Elsewhere in the world, websites and broadcasters are routinely blocked – as al Jazeera’s broadcasts to Egypt have been in recent months. Prosecutions in the UK for various, little-understood ‘communications crimes’ are rising steeply. And, David Miranda’s detention at Heathrow, of course, had all the hallmarks of real old-school impediments to press freedom.
None of these threats will disappear anytime soon – but that is all the more reason for journalists to shout about them, suggests Julian Petley. “What we need is a culture where the first instinct of reporters, and the newspapers, websites and broadcasters for whom they work, is to defend freedom of expression – and to expose those who try to undermine that freedom. We might not always agree about how this is best achieved, but challenging cases like these should always to top of the media’s agenda, whether we love or loath the affected publications”.
If, as practitioners, we take his advice, ‘press freedom’ might just generate as many column inches in the coming year as it did in the last. If we don’t, a time may come – when it really does matter – when there is no one left to speak up for us. By then, of course, will have only ourselves to blame.