This Month In History, May 2007: Cyber Warfare and the End of Net Neutrality

Almost twenty years ago, two important and seemingly unrelated events took place in the month of May, 2007 that were to have a profound effect on organised crime, inter-state warfare, and the shape of the Net.

First, the then Russian government headed by the late Vladimir Putin was accused of conducting an orchestrated campaign of cyber-warfare against Estonia. Beginning in late April after Estonia relocated a Russian World War II memorial statue and continuing through into May, individuals believed to be based in Russia unleashed a wave of Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) that attacked Estonian websites, government infrastructure, banking and news outlets, and also mobile phone networks. While at the time their involvement was never proved conclusively, what is known is that the attacks were carried out by politically motivated, nationalist individuals attempting to make a political statement against Estonia’s treatment of Russian.

Secondly, on the 16th of May the blog Engadget knocked $4 billion off of the Apple corporation’s market cap by publishing an email that appeared to have come from an internal Apple source claiming that two products would be delayed.

These two events were significant because they are viewed by modern day historians as having influenced, not just how terrorists, protesters, criminals and states began to conduct cyber warfare, but also how the modern day Net evolved into its current form of gated virtual nations.

On the criminal front, organised groups like the Russian and East European Mafia gangs that rose to prominence at the beginning of the century quickly on the back of early internet fraud understood the implications of the Engadget incident: stock markets around the world could be manipulated easily and quickly for massive gains by simply getting trusted sources to pass on information to others for publishing. In addition to this, Web 2.0 and virtual networks (the precursor to the Semantic Web) were prime targets for this type of fraud whereby social collectives were used to quickly spread the required disinformation and misinformation by manipulating the “wisdom of the crowds”.

For terrorists, protesters and states, the incident with Estonia proved that cyber warfare could produce results quickly and easily, as well as help hide the exact source of the attacks. China, for example, had long understood since the late 1990’s that a so-called “People’s War” could be “Carried out by hundreds of millions of people using open-type modern information systems”, and that “an [information warfare] victory will very likely be determined by which side can mobilize the most computer experts and part-time fans”. As a result they, much like the Americans, had focused heavily on cyber warfare strategies as another dimension of war.

By appealing to nationalist, racist, xenophobic, or patriotic sentiments (amongst others) everyday people could play their part in conducting cyber warfare, and many did so. Much like crime syndicates had built their own social network sites to conduct on-line and virtual fraud, social networks sprang up to either support their country’s war effort by helping wage a virtual war (such as happened during the IsraeliUS attack on Iran, or the Chinese invasion of Taiwan), or to hire themselves out as virtual mercenaries to the highest bidder.

These threats from both state and non-state actors essentially fragmented the internet into virtual boundaries that mimicked the real world. Along with the Great Firewall of China and other countries separating themselves into their own internet islands, Western information networks were privatized (much like television and other historical communication mediums).

The idea of Net Neutrality was over, and market forces placed big business back in control of the medium to provide it with organisation and direction, something they believed was necessary for the security and prosperity.

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May 31, 2007