Doh! Canada responds to Yes Men hoax by zapping thousands of websites

by Justin Elliot, TPM Muckraker

The Canadian government managed to temporarily wipe out 4,500 personal and small business Web sites last month as it frantically grappled with a climate change hoax by the Yes Men, enlisting the national cybersecurity agencies of Canada and Germany in the process, a Danish web hosting company and the Yes Men tell TPMmuckraker.

Yes Man Mike Bonanno, one of the marquee personalities of the lefty activist group, tells TPMmuckraker that the experience, in which a German Internet service provider shut down the Yes Men's parody Web sites in response to a Canadian demand, is "really unfortunate for free speech on the Internet. The kind of scary thing about this is that these hosting companies seem so eager to act in the interest of whoever has the most power."

The overzealous response by Canada echoes the Chamber of Commerce's handling of a similar hoax in December: namely, suing the Yes Men in federal court.

Our story begins with an elaborate prank executed by the Yes Men during the Copenhagen climate conference last month. In a series of fake press releases, Canadian officials announced the country, whose intensive extraction of oil from tar sands has raised the ire of environmentalists, was reversing course by setting ambitious new emissions-cutting goals, as well as pledging billions of dollars for Africa.

"Contributing to the development of other nations and taking full responsibilities for our emissions is simple Canadian good sense," Canada's environmental minister was quoted as saying in the phony press release, which led reporters to the parody Web site enviro-canada.ca. A later Yes Men press release featuring an outraged (but also made-up) response from Canada was linked to ec-gc.ca. The real site of Environment Canada, the country's environmental protection agency, is at ec.gc.ca.

Canadian officials were apparently not pleased by the prank, which garnered the usual amused headlines around the world. So at some point in the week after the Dec. 14 hoax, an official named Mike Landreville from Environment Canada's Intellectual Property Office fired off an e-mail demanding "on behalf of the Minister of the Environment" that the two Yes Men Web sites be promptly deleted. (More on to whom the e-mail went in a moment.)

Landreville stated that the sites "infringe Environment Canada's Intellectual Property and acts as a phishing site to the official Departmental site." (Here is an image of one of the sites.)

Landreville's e-mail, which you can read here, was provided by the Yes Men and their Web hosting company. Environment Canada spokeswoman Laura Cummings confirmed to us that it had asked for the sites to be taken down; Landreville himself declined to comment when reached by phone yesterday.

So who did Environment Canada ask to eliminate the fake sites? The Canadian Cyber Incident Response Centre, of course. That agency describes itself as devoted to "the protection of national critical infrastructure against cyber incidents."

CCIRC, as its known, then forwarded the Environment Canada request to CERT-Bund, its German counterpart, asking for assistance.

CERT stands for Computer Emergency Readiness Team; for context, you can read about US-CERT here. CERT-Bund in turn sent an e-mail to Serverloft, the German ISP that was providing Internet to Pi-Web, a Copenhagen-based company that was hosting the parody sites for the Yes Men.

By this point, it was Dec. 21, the day when things went seriously wrong. At about 8:30 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time, Pi-Web technical officer Ole Tange got an alarm that the server was down, he told TPMmuckraker. But instead of just killing service for enviro-canada.ca and ec-gc.ca, ServerLoft had turned off a whole block of IP addresses, Tange says. That led to 4,500 sites being temporarily wiped out -- mostly "family owned businesses or private individuals' sites," Tange says. Also knocked off was Pi-Web's own site.

After two hours and some angry phone conversations with Serverloft in which Tange says he became "not very calm," Internet service was restored to the block of IPs, but only on condition that Tange pull the Yes Men sites.

Tange, who has composed a timeline of the events on his Web site, tells us that one frustrated small businessman customer has threatened to take his business elsewhere. But the bigger problem, he believes, is that no government entity issued a warrant, and he was never asked by Canada, or anyone, to simply take down the sites.

"We really feel bad about it," he tells TPMmuckraker. We really subscribe to the UN declaration of human rights. This is a human rights violation of article 12," referring to the prohibition of "arbitrary interference" of a person's "correspondence."

Serverloft did not respond to a request for comment. But here's an interview (in German) with the company's CEO. The Google translated version of the interview suggests the CEO declined to comment on the number of sites knocked out.

Tange, for his part, says his company can't afford to pursue the matter on its own. "We would love if someone like the Electronic Frontier Foundation would take up this matter. We would be more than happy to help."

article originally published at TPM Muckraker.

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