This past Saturday, a group calling itself Gnosis broke into Gawker's website, obtaining and releasing among other things a database of 1.3 million of the site's users and their email addresses.
Though the passwords in the database were encrypted, making it impossible to read them directly, the encryption used was apparently quite weak, and many of these passwords have been exposed. More than 2000 Gawker users apparently chose the password "password", second only in popularity to the presumably Mel Brooks-inspired "123456". Revealing Gawker's password database may at first seem harmless, but given the likelihood that many people use the same passwords for Gawker as for their Facebook accounts, email or even online banking, the potential for harm is real.
This attack appears to be little more than puerile retaliation for remarks previously made by Gawker and its founder Nick Denton criticising the popular bulletin board 4chan. The site, originally built as a place for English-language discussion of Japanese culture, has become a popular, almost completely anonymous, and notoriously freewheeling message board perhaps best known as the source of many popular internet "memes", humorous catchphrases, images, or videos (such as the well-known "rick-roll") which are repeated, modified, and spread throughout the internet. The primary goal is usually to elicit "lulz", a corruption of "lol" (for laughing out loud), and best defined as laughter, usually at someone else's expense and almost always accompanied by lots of intentional misspellings. "Just for the lulz" may be best translated as 4chan's equivalent of doing something "just for kicks."
4chan is also known as the home of Anonymous, the movement which takes its name from the anonymity which users enjoy on 4chan and which uses the same sort of "lulzy" humour in other, often more explicitly political, forums. The Anonymous movement first entered the public sphere when it began to publicly protest against Scientology but has become more recently famous for its co-ordination of attacks against companies which have refused to do business with WikiLeaks.
These "Distributed Denial of Service" (DDoS) attacks work by amassing a number of computers and having them all visit a target website simultaneously in the hope of overwhelming it, leaving it unable to service requests from other visitors. DDoS attacks are most commonly launched by a single (usually criminal) entity who has control of a large number of personal computers which have been infected by some of virus, but Anonymous modifies this model: a large number of individual users voluntarily download the attack software and then run it themselves, choosing the site to target in consultation with other Anonymous members (ironically enough, this software appears to make no attempts to guard its users' anonymity, leaving them vulnerable to detection and arrest).
In contrast to Gnosis's "just for the lulz" attack on Gawker, the Anonymous attacks raise an interesting question for defenders of free speech: do we support the attacks as a form of speech act, or do we support the targets' original right to spread their messages unhindered? Is a DDoS attack the modern analogue of a lunch-counter sit-in, or the equivalent of a book-burning mob? The debate is further muddled when we consider that both the Anonymous DDoS attackers and their targets are engaging in action that is neither purely speech nor purely something else.
Certainly the DDoS attacks have the speech component of registering displeasure with their targets, but they also have the functional component of directly acting to disable their targets' servers. Similarly, the e-commerce companies' websites act to transmit information, but they also directly perform commerce. A sit-in at PayPal's office may bring media attention, but it is impossible to actually disrupt their business without being on the internet.
There is, at least for now, another, more heartening option available, which we see in WikiLeaks' supporters positive action in building almost 2000 servers with copies of the WikiLeaks material. Let's call these mirrors a distributed provision of service, and let's hope for now that they can help us preserve freedom of speech for everybody.