Why Have Hackers Hit Russia's Most Popular Blogging Service?

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If the hacker attacks that hit Russia's top blogging service, LiveJournal, this week are anything to go by, the unwritten rules of cyber warfare no longer apply. Instead of the focused assaults hackers often used to force down the websites of their ideological enemies, these attacks look more like online carpet bombing. Their victim is not one voice but the entire cacophonous world of the Russian blogosphere. And the motive, as close as experts have been able to figure, is to erode the virtual infrastructure of free speech itself.

The scope of the attack on LiveJournal wasn't clear when the first wave struck in the last week of March, sometimes slowing sites down to a crawl, other times knocking them offline altogether. At first the assault seemed narrowly political in nature, targeting the sites of just one anti-corruption crusader and blogger, Alexei Navalny, who has long been a thorn in the government's side. Most famously, he once dubbed United Russia, the ruling party of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, "the party of swindlers and thieves" — a moniker the party has since been frantically trying to shake.

It was easy, therefore, for Navalny and other opposition bloggers to conclude that the hackers were aligned with (or hired by) the government. There have been many precedents to back up the theory. In 2007, when the Russian government had a diplomatic spat with Estonia, hackers sympathetic to the Russian cause shut down the websites of Estonia's banking system and its government. In August 2008, when Russia was at war with Georgia, Georgian government websites were crippled by hackers, and a year later, a Georgian blogger who wrote on LiveJournal with an anti-Russian slant was hit with attacks so massive they briefly shut down Facebook and Twitter, where the blogger also had accounts.

But easy as it was to blame the Kremlin for all these ideological attacks, it was just as easy for the Kremlin's defenders to point out that hackers who mount such attacks can do so whenever they please, at very little cost and without getting orders from anyone. It's easy to imagine a brigade of nationalist hackers who share the Kremlin's ideology and launch an attack out of a sense of patriotism. This was widely believed to be the case with Estonia, even among independent experts who studied those attacks.

But this week, the second barrage against LiveJournal — the site's owners called it "an all-out war" — broke away from the familiar pattern. The onslaught, coming from an army of remotely controlled computers, had no ideological rhyme or reason. The victims included dozens of Russia's most popular bloggers, ranging from a sentimental fiction writer to a banking tycoon, as well as the LiveJournal homepage. Even the blog of President Dmitri Medvedev, a self-styled techie, came under attacks so powerful that it was inaccessible for several hours on Wednesday. On Thursday, Medvedev ordered police to launch an investigation.

"This kind of attack is something totally new," says Marina Litvinovich, a former government spin doctor who went on to create Russia's main aggregator of blog posts, BestToday.ru. "It is an attempt to uproot not one user but the entire LiveJournal community, which appears to have become too influential, too strong in setting the political agenda of the day."

Indeed, with around 5 million Russian accounts read by some 30 million people per month, LiveJournal has emerged as the country's last truly free and public space for political debate, a chaotic kind of intellectual clearinghouse and the source of not only gossip, conspiracy theories and pro-government propaganda, but also countless revelations of corruption and official incompetence. In terms of the sheer variety of opinions expressed and defended on LiveJournal, it has been leagues ahead of Russia's other media.

And it's that diversity, say experts, that is the ultimate target of these attacks. They seem to be trying to divert and restrict the political discussion to media the government can more readily control. "There's no ideology at play here, unless you want to talk about an anti-blogging ideology," says Alexander Plushchev, Russia's leading commentator on issues of the Internet.

Which means the government's old story of ideological hacker-patriots acting on their own wouldn't seem to make sense in this case. What cause would they possibly be fighting for? As Plushchev puts it: "These are clearly just Internet hit men [who] got the order to take out LiveJournal."

Who is really behind the attacks will likely remain a mystery, but if their aim is to splinter Russia's online community, it looks to be working. On Wednesday, Boris Nemtsov, Russia's leading opposition figure, started posting his views on Facebook while LiveJournal remained inaccessible, depriving him of the populous online community that usually follows and debates his posts.

In the lead-up to Russia's parliamentary elections in December, and the crucial presidential vote next March, Litvinovich of BestToday.ru expects the attacks will continue. "The goal here is to discredit LiveJournal, which had introduced a wild card into the political system," she says. "It had become a real instrument of influencing public opinion, and it was not under anyone's control." So whether or not any government officials are behind the attack, some of them are likely relieved to have a break from LiveJournal politics.