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Russia: Distributed Denial of LiveJournal

Russian online space is getting more violent. The last series of attacks on LiveJournal blogging platform has proved this once again. The attacks happened three times (on March 30, April 4 and April 6) paralyzing the Russian political blogosphere. Whatever are the reasons (political, technical or commercial), the attack on LiveJournal is an attack on online speech in Russia. Bloggers, however, share responsibility for the situation.

Russian DDoS warfare: 2007 – 2011

Frank, LiveJournal's mascot has now more reasons to cry. Screenshot of LiveJournal website.

Frank, LiveJournal's mascot, has now more reasons to cry. Screenshot of LiveJournal website.

The possibility of an attack on LiveJournal was predictable. In January 2010, when I was asked by Ivan Sigal, GV Executive Director, what were the most probable DDoS (Distributed Denial-of-Service) targets in Russia, I called LiveJournal the most endangered platform. Usage and seriousness of DDoS, the universal online weapon used both for commercial extortions and political assaults, are increasing every year. Russia, in this context, is famous not only for having a long history of suppressing dissent, but also for being a country with one of the widest and cheapest markets for DDoS services.

Noticeable political DDoS attacks have been happening in Russia since 2007. Before the attack on LiveJournal, the targets were either independent or semi-independent media (novayagazeta.ru, kommersant.ru, vedomosti.ru being the most known cases), and pro-democracy political parties (mosyabloko.ru was attacked in 2007). 2011 has been marked by political DDoS, too. In the beginning of February 2011, the website [ru] of a small but vocal Libertarian Party of Russia was ‘DDoS-ed‘ [ru] by its virtual spoiler ‘Party of Liberty‘ [ru].

Things changed in 2011. On February 25, for the first time in the RuNet history, the website of the United Russia’ party was attacked [ru]. A Ukraine-based information technology specialist has registered a website with a provocative name putinvzrivaetdoma.org [‘Putin Blows Up Houses,’ a reference to the conspiracy theory behind 1999 appartment bombings in Russia [ru] and installed LOIC (Low Orbital Ion Cannon, a weapon of choice of the Anonymous hacker group), an open-source tool for crowdsourced DDoS. For several hours, United Russia‘s website was unaccessible.

Commercials attacks are a grim reality for many websites as well – they are being organized on a daily basis, and their owners are being extorted [ru]. According to the latest research [ru] by Russian cybersecurity company Group IB, 35 percent of DDoS attacks are conducted by Russian (or, to be more precise, russophone) hackers.

Versions behind the attack

In these conditions, anonymous and relatively cheap DDoS attacks are more efficient than legal prosecution or physical harrassment of bloggers. Combined with human bots that spin “hot” topics, this tactic helps authorities deny any evident fact of cyber censorship. Other evidence of the political origin of these attacks is the fact that before LiveJournal, an anti-corruption website rospil.info had been attacked by infamous Darkness/Optima botnet (the name of the network of infected computers). These and other details of the attack were published by the independent analysis [ru] at Kaspersky Lab, a cyber security company.

At the same time, it's important to realize that politics is not the only explanation for attacks. As mentioned earlier, Whichever version is true, the consequences of the attack became political. Commercial explanations have split into two main versions:

  1. An attempt by LiveJournal‘s competitors to initiate a massive exodus of bloggers from the platform;
  2. An attempt to support with live evidence the draft bill that would include DDoS attack into the Criminal Code [ru] (surprisingly or not, the draft bill had been submitted to the Parliament one day before the attack on LiveJournal).

Technical version of the lack of functionality has been voiced [ru] by German Klimenko, a creator of the competing service LiveInternet.ru. According to this version, LiveJournal's blackouts were connected with the new system of caching introduced by the company before the attack.

Why concentration is dangerous.

Historically, many Russian Internet users became bloggers with the help of LiveJournal. Being one of the oldest blogging platforms, LiveJournal had natural advantages over other platforms. A hybrid of a publishing tool and social network, LiveJournal became even more popular when its invitation-only regime was abandoned in 2004.

In October 2006, SUP [ru], a company now controlled by Kremlin-affiliated oligarch Alisher Usmanov, acquired a license to manage the Cyrillic services of LiveJournal. In other words, the Russian segment of LiveJournal was managed by a Russian company. In 2007, SUP acquired [ru] the rest of LiveJournal.

LiveJournal‘s popularity and outreached have increased ever since and resulted in the core of the Russian blogosphere being “comprised mainly, though not exclusively, of blogs on the LiveJournal platform” (Berkman Center Research, 2010).

The high concentration of political bloggers made LiveJournal a strategic element in the infrastructure of Russian free expression and digital dissent. This fact means that any disfunctionality of the platform (intended by the Russian authorities or not) automatically resulted in political consequences in the Russian political landscape.

Having a blog on LiveJournal was fashionable, convenient (since “everyone is here”), while LiveJournal‘s managers stressed its uniqueness in the Russian blogosphere. This formed a feeling of very tight affiliation with the platform. Below are the typical reactions of popular Russian bloggers.

Andrey Malgin [ru]:

Я, конечно, вечерком от нечего делать завел себе аккаунты где только можно, буду зеркалить до посинения, но все же призывы некоторых товарищей уходить на другие сервисы не поддерживаю. Это же прям мечта врага: чтобы все разбрелись кто куда. Нет уж, сидеть на этом корабле надо до последнего. Даже если он на глазах под воду уходит.

Of course, I have created accounts everywhere I could, I will backup my site to the point of exhaustion, but I don't support those who say we should leave to other services. It is an enemy's dream: so that everyone would flee to other places. No, I will stay on this ship till the end. Even if it goes underwater at this very moment.

Artemiy Lebedev [ru]:

Дорогие мои! Пока жив в ЖЖ последний читатель, никогда я не перейду на стандалон. Никогда не начну вести блог на сраном Блоггере. Никогда не отправлю своих читателей смотреть фотки на Фликре. Никакой Твиттер не заменит настоящую свободу – наш ЖЖ.

Dear friends! Until the last LJ [LiveJournal] reader is alive, I will not move to stand alone [blog]. I will never start a blog at f…ng Blogspot. I will never send my readers to watch pictures at Flickr. No Twitter will replace the real freedom – our LiveJournal.

Some however, were less attached and quickly created Blogspot accounts (such as opposition politician Boris Nemtsov). Eugene Gorny, a media analyst and author of the book “A Creative History of the Russian Internet,” wrote [ru]:

«Многие лже-юзеры причитают о незаменимости жэжешечки и выражают свое no pasaran. А по мне так решение проблемы должно состоять не в сохранении этого добровольно-принудительного колхоза, а в нахождении технических решений наподобие p2p, которое позволило бы пользователям всех стран совокупляться в любые конфигурации независимо от платформы без посредства какого бы то ни было центрального сервиса.»

Many LiveJournal users lament the irreplaceability of LiveJournal and express their “no pasaran.” To my mind, the solution of the problem would not be in saving it but made to appear as voluntary kolkhoz [Soviet collective farm], but in finding a technical solution like p2p [peer-to-peer] solution that would allow users from all the countries to copulate into any possible configurations independent of the platform without any centralized service whatsoever.

Besides, the relations between top bloggers and the SUP managing company remain unclear. If some bloggers, like Anton Nosik [ru], drugoi [ru] or Artemiy Lebedev [ru] were once employed by SUP, it is unclear wherever they have conflict of interests regarding LiveJournal.

Trebor Scholz, a media analyst at The New School in NYC, described the situation as the “enforcement of the digital cages.” In the article ‘Infrastructure: Its Transformations and Effect on Digital Activism,‘ he wrote:

The danger of overwhelming commercialism is that the resultant monoculture enforces digital cages on the Web—for example, choosing to leave (or never join) Facebook is a difficult decision because its millions of users make the Infrastructure: Its Transformations and Effect on Digital Activism 31 service culturally powerful. The best environment for digital activists is a varied one, with many effective, accessible, and easy-touse tools available.

The drastic effects of LiveJournal's paralysis are due not only to the possible (quite possible) political attack, but also to the hyper-concentration of the bloggers in one place. Even though this concentration creates a surplus in discussion or decision-making, it is the bloggers – and not the platform – who create content and influence political agenda. The only positive effect of attacks against LiveJournal is that bloggers and digital activists have realized how fragile the Russian blogosphere really is.

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