Hacker collective Anonymous on Thursday evening apparently took out the Justice Department's website and is trying to knock out WhiteHouse.gov in retaliation for the feds taking out movie-trafficking site Megaupload.com. The action comes in the middle of a global debate over U.S. anti-piracy legislation that critics, including the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, argue would reduce the Internet to a surveillance tool that facilitates the type of content-blocking seen in dictatorships.
More than 5,000 hacker activists are using a software program to overload with useless traffic the servers running Justice.gov and entertainment companies' sites, according to people associated with Anonymous and messages posted by the group on Twitter.
Justice officials on Thursday night issued a statement acknowledging their site is suffering from heightened traffic.
"The Department of Justice web server hosting justice.gov is currently experiencing a significant increase in activity, resulting in a degradation in service," a DOJ spokesperson said in a statement." The Department is working to ensure the website is available while we investigate the origins of this activity, which is being treated as a malicious act until we can fully identify the root cause of the disruption."
Justice officials earlier in the day announced they had charged seven individuals affiliated with Megaupload.com and related sites for uploading films prior to their release and other online intellectual property. The alleged ringleaders of the conspiracy were from Hong Kong, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Turkey and Estonia.
Anonymous also claimed to have shuttered sites belonging to the music and movie industries, as well as other supporters of the pending legislation -- the Senate's PROTECT IP Act, or PIPA, and the House's Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA.
Protect IP sponsor Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Judiciary Committee chairman, applauded the Justice Department's move on Thursday and said it underscored the need for a law to control the theft of U.S. intellectual property abroad.
"Unfortunately, there are no tools in the arsenal to protect that same American intellectual property from theft by websites hosted and operated overseas," he said in a statement. "Meaningful legislation to stop online infringement and piracy by foreign rogue websites will protect American workers, American consumers and America's economy. The PROTECT IP Act would close this gap and offer a meaningful solution to this costly and corrosive problem."
Late Thursday, a note on a blog maintained by Anonymous members indicated hackers are now targeting the Oval Office.
"Hacktivists with the collective Anonymous are waging an attack on the website for the White House after successfully breaking the sites for the Department of Justice, Universal Music Group, [Recording Industry Association of America] and Motion Picture Association of America," the message stated. "Many members of Congress have just changed their stance on the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. The raid on Megaupload Thursday proved that the feds don't need SOPA or its sister legislation, PIPA, in order to pose a blow to the Web."
Anonymous members may be plotting another gambit "for dealing with all of the senators supporting Protect IP," said Gregg Housh, a computer engineer who follows Anonymous, but denies involvement in the group's activities.
The masterminds behind Megaupload.com cost copyright holders more than $500 million, Justice officials alleged. The suspects were indicted on Jan. 5, and accused of, among other things, racketeering and conspiring to commit copyright infringement.
For more than five years, the culprits apparently distributed movies, music, TV shows, e-books and other copyrighted software on a site that accounted for more than 4 percent of traffic on the Internet. Megaupload.com allegedly raked in more than $175 million in illegal profits through advertising schemes and premium membership sales.
If confronted by a copyright holder, the collaborators would disable a single link to the file, deliberately leaving the infringing material available for millions of users through many duplicate links, according to the indictment. They masked the impropriety of their work "by not providing a public search function on the Megaupload site and by not including popular infringing content on the publicly available lists of top content downloaded by its users," according to Justice's announcement of the charges.
The original version of this story misstated Justice Department estimates of the cost of intellectual property violations to copyright holders associated with the Megaupload.com case.