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The APC European Internet Rights Project

Internet Censorship Case Study:
Euskal Herria Journal

By Chris Nicol


In 1997, a web site on the Institute for Global Communication[1] (IGC) server was effectively put out of action by thousands of messages directed at the server. This mailbombing, a massive denial of service, was a deliberate attempt at censoring a website because of the views expressed, and as such an attack on the freedom of information on the Internet.

The site belonged to the Euskal Herria Journal[2], an organisation concerned by the political situation in the Basque Country, in the Spanish State. The Basque armed organisation, E.T.A, has been waging a violent struggle for independence for Euskal Herria (the Basque Country) from Spain since the days of the Franco dictatorship. Part of this struggle has been the killing and kidnapping of members of the Spanish armed forces and police, and more recently politicians, businessmen, drug dealers, journalists, members of the judiciary, and others. These killings by ETA have led to enormous public outrage in Spain, and huge demonstrations against them. The EHJ site had information about the Basque Country and the struggle for Basque independence. It did not openly support ETA, although it did try to give the point of view of the independence movement, including one of its primary demands, the regrouping of ETA prisoners in the Basque Country. When a young politician, Miguel Angel Blanco[3], was killed on June 13, 1997, after being kidnapped by ETA, the indignation was enormous. It was in this context that the mailbombing of IGC occurred, when the EHJ site was targeted as being the ETA site , and some Spanish cybernauts decided to silence it[4].

The first attacks occurred on June 14, consisting of 400 messages to EHJ. These built up to thousands of messages, often insulting in their language and content, attachments of 2Mb, to a lesser extent attacks on the website itself, etc. IGC tried to resist, viewing the attacks as a direct threat to freedom of information on the Internet. They blocked some IPs from where the mail was coming, but the mail kept changing its source and it was impossible to withstand the deluge of traffic which was blocking their servers and thus putting all of their more than 13,000 users' websites and mail out of service. Spanish news forums[5] were used to discuss the most effective means of disabling the IGC server, special programs for sending thousands of emails were distributed there and on web pages, and at least one paid advertisement[6] in the Spanish newspaper El Peridico called on the public to join in.

Eventually IGC realised that it was impossible to continue hosting the site, and they pulled it down on July 18, under protest and immediately looking for alternatives[7]. As a member of the Association for Progressive Communication[8] (APC), a worldwide federation of alternative Internet nodes, they appealed for help to the other APC members and to other progressive sites to put the EHJ pages up again on several different servers, with the aim of making it impossible to silence all of them. Quickly, mirrors were created on at least 6 servers in various countries[9], and publicity given to them. Several members of APC were mailbombed too, but not enough to suffer real damage. Meanwhile, with the EHJ pages no longer on IGC, the mailbombing began to abate, although it was only around the 29th of July that they were able to remove the blocks they had put on the offending Spanish ISPs and their mail services returned to normal.

The EHJ site is still alive[10], and the mirrors have disappeared because they are no longer needed. They effectively allowed EHJ to continue to present its point of view, although this was not without problems. For example, one mirror hosted by Internet Freedom on an Easynet server in Britain was mailbombed too, and then censored by the ISP.[11] Internet Freedom was forced to move its web site to another ISP. Enormous publicity and debate was generated about the issue. Some Spanish newspapers published details of how to mailbomb IGC[12], leading to debates about the ethical validity of this practice. The major Spanish daily, El Pa_s, eventually recognised its error in encouraging the bombing, and condemned it as immoral[13]. Some ICT magazine editorials supported the bombing. A representative of the Spanish Civil Guard, a militarised police force, openly encouraged it. The Spanish government asked CNN and other newspapers to remove the link to the EHJ site in an article about the affair, but they refused[14]. Those who backed the bombing barely considered the legality of their action, and the ethical question was avoided on the grounds that ETA was a terrorist organisation and thus any means were justified- all that mattered was to attack ETA, and the EHJ site was seen as representing it. One of the few organisations in Spain that defended IGC was Ipanex, the APC member in that country[15].

But the overwhelming response outside Spain was critical, and many organisations published statements of support for IGC and for EHJ's right to publish on the Internet[16]. IGC itself stated that they would review whether EHJ was compatible with IGC's mission, but insisted that mailbombings would not force them to silence a user. In Spain, Electronic Frontiers (FrEE)[17] published an extended criticism of the action, defending freedom of expression on the Internet. In magazines[18], web sites[19] and newsgroups, debate raged about the action, and while some were in favour of continuing to bomb sites that could be considered pro-ETA, many others recognised the futility of this, or even recognised their mistake in supporting the bombing of IGC. The whole issue of freedom of expression on the Internet began to be debated openly, as cybernauts realised that the question was not just ETA, yes or no, but wider issues of free speech, tolerance and the validity of mailbombing[20]. Several other groups outside of Spain also published statements of support for IGC and for freedom of expression[21]. Global Internet Liberty Campaign[22], a coalition of 17 Internet Rights groups, offered their support to IGC, and condemned this and all mailbombing on the grounds that they are a non-democratic form of censorship that also hurt third parties[23].

It is clear that mailbombing can be technically effective as a means of forcing an ISP to take down a web site in the short term. It is difficult to stop and there are programs freely available to nullify counter measures. But it is also clear that mirroring of a site is an effective strategy to prevent websites from being silenced. If enough mirrors can be set up quickly enough, the mailbombers soon see not only that such censorship attempts are technically futile, but also that they are counterproductive, because they give much more publicity to the site than it would ever have had without the bombing. Apart from the mirrors, there are innumerable news articles referring to the mailbombing of EHJ/IGC all over the Internet[24], most with a link to the mirrored pages. There is a need to make available rapid, effective, pre-prepared and co-ordinated procedures to enable as many organisations or individuals as possible to respond immediately to a mailbombing.

The mailbombing of IGC also raised awareness about the issues of freedom of expression in the Internet. Some of those who supported it at first, in blind, unthinking rage at the ETA killings, later regretted their action. Even one of the main anti-ETA sites, created to denounce ETA as murderous terrorists, now has a policy page on mailbombing, stating their total disagreement with it as a tactic.[25] It would probably be difficult to find public support for another bombing of this type in Spain now, although this does not mean that one person, or a small group, will not try to use it to silence other points of view. There were debates on many web sites that act as a living memory and repository of experience to dissuade individuals from repeating the disastrous experience of the mailbombing of IGC.

Sources

1 http://www.igc.org

2 Now at http://members.freespeech.org/ehj

3 http://spanishculture.about.com/culture/spanishculture/library/weekly/aa071698.htm

4 Note that there was a previous attack on a pro-ETA site, "Euskadi Information", which also succeeded in forcing the site to be shut down in 1996. Another issue was the calls by some to take all links to pro-ETA sites from indexers or searchers. cf the press statement by Olé, one of the pioneering Spanish indexers, at http://www.idg.es/iworld/especial/basta_ya/19970723com_ole.html

5 eg es.charla.politica, es.charla.actualidad, es.charla.educacion, es.comp.hackers

6 EL Periódico 1/8/97, p28

7 cf IGC statement: http://www.igc.org/ehj/

8 http://www.apc.org

9 eg http://osis.ucsd.edu/ , http://www.desaparecidos.org/ehj/ , http://www.easynet.co.uk/cam/censorship/ehj , http://samsara.law.cwru.edu/comp_law/ehj/ and http://zthomas.digiweb.com have disappeared, while http://www.contrast.org/mirrors/ehj/ has an old mirror.

10 http://members.freespeech.org/ehj/

11 http://burn.ucsd.edu/archives/ats-l/1997.Sep/0035.html

12 "Los Internautas se movilizan contra ETA", El País, 15/7/97, removed from the web edition.

13 "Internet y ETA", El País, 14/9/97, p 16

14 "Spain to CNN: Don't link to guerrillas", once at news.cnet.com/news/0-1002.html , but no longer on the web.

15 http://www.igc.org/ehj/#ipanex

16 http://www.igc.org/ehj/

17 http://www.arnal.es/free/coms/bombing.html

18 eg "El Poder del Internauta" (The Power of the Cybernaut), PC Actual, September, 1997

19 http://www.idg.es/iworld/especial/basta_ya/19970728.html

20 The Spanish daily, El Mundo, criticised the mailbombing. http://www.el-mundo.es/navegante/opinion/igcehj.html

21 http://www.igc.apc.org/ehj/

22 www.gilc.org

23 http://www.gilc.org/speech/spain/igc-statement-en.html

24 A search for Euskal Herria Journal will find some.

25 http://manos-blancas.uam.es/mailbombing.html



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