On Tuesday, at the same time that thousands of Russians marched through Moscow to protest President Vladimir Putin, the websites of three independent Russian news organizations suffered distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, rendering them temporarily inaccessible during the height of the protests. The coordination of such attacks with organized mass protests or elections has become increasingly common in Russia over the last year.
DDoS attacks are when multiple PCs are used to overwhelm a website’s bandwidth or resources, rendering the website inaccessible to users. As the Internet and Democracy project explains, it is difficult to discern who is responsible for such attacks because they “often come from large collections of infected computers and so are very difficult to track back to the responsible actor.”
As thousands gathered in Moscow for a protest dubbed “March of Millions” on Tuesday, the websites of independent radio station Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow), Internet-satellite TV station Dozhd (Rain) and independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta were reportedly inaccessible due to DDoS attacks from unidentified hackers. Dozhd was broadcasting live from the rally when it reported that its website was attacked; Ekho Moskvy’s website editor described the attacks as one of the strongest they’ve ever faced.
Over the past eight months, news outlets and other organizations with more critical views of the Kremlin and its policies have faced similar attacks. The Internet and Democracy project noted a series of coordinated attacks that disabled leading independent media, election monitoring and blogging sites during the December 2011 Duma (parliamentary) elections. These elections served as a catalyst for mass protests in Russia not seen since the fall of the Soviet Union, primarily targeting Putin and his party, United Russia. In May, hackers shut down the online streaming site uStream using DDoS attacks after Russian activists used the website to stream live video of protests of Putin’s third inauguration. Around that same time, Ekho Moskvy, Dozhd and newspaper Kommersant also reported attacks.
Independent media outlets are important source of dissenting views in the Russian media market. State-owned television stations dominate Russia’s media landscape, and they toe the official party line with respect to both the protests and government policies more generally. In contrast, independent media outlets have been more critical of Putin and his government both offline and online. It is primarily the websites of such outlets that have been targeted by hackers, though as noted above, it is impossible to conclude that these attacks are being carried out at the behest of the Kremlin.
Unlike China, which censors sensitive subjects on its social media platforms, the Russian government opts for a more hands-off approach to the social media outlets that have played a starring role in organizing and sustaining ongoing protests in Russia. One of the opposition movement’s de facto leaders is a blogger, Alexei Navalny, whose anti-corruption blog boasts tens of thousands of followers.
Berkman Center researchers, who have been investigating the impact of the Internet on Russian politics, media and society, conclude that the networked online sphere offers Russians “an independent alternative to the more tightly-controlled offline media and political space, as well as the growing use of digital platforms in social mobilization and civil action.” However, DDoS attacks like the ones targeted at independent news websites on Tuesday represent an ongoing threat to this networked online sphere.