Netizens from Taiwan and China have been using distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against the Philippine government after a Taiwanese fisherman was shot dead by a Philippine Coast Guard vessel on Thursday last week. The Taiwanese government said that the incident occurred in waters north of the Philippines, where the exclusive economic zones of the Philippines and Taiwan overlap. However, the Philippine Coast Guard said that it fired at the Taiwanese fishing boat because it was fishing illegally in Philippine waters.
While both Taipei and Manila have agreed to investigate the incident, impatient Taiwanese netizens have accused their government of not taking any immediate action and being too soft on the issue.
On PTT — Taiwan’s largest online bulletin board system — netizens have initiated a DDoS attack, mobilizing individuals to interrupt the services of Philippine government Web sites. Anyone can add a special script on his or her Web site so that when others visit the site, the script automatically refreshes government Web sites in the Philippines and the resulting massive demand for refreshing Web pages causes the targeted sites’ servers to crash. For instance, Comelec.gov.ph, the Web page of the Philippine Commission on Elections, was interrupted on Saturday — two days before the general election on Monday — leaving Filipinos unable to check the locations of nearby precincts and polling stations.
Launched by Taiwanese netizens, this cyberattack was originally intended to redress diplomatic actions that the netizens believe the Taiwanese government has failed to take in a timely manner. However, the shooting has also triggered outrage among Chinese netizens on social networking platforms, such as Sina Weibo. Chinese netizens who consider Taiwan to be a part of China believe it is necessary to voice support for their brethren in Taiwan.
This is further fueled by long-simmering nationalist sentiment over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), which are contested by Taiwan, China and Japan, which calls them the Senkakus, as well as territorial conflicts in the South China Sea. As of Sunday evening, there have been more than 1.7 billion posts discussing the incident on Sina Weibo. Most of them echo Taiwanese netizens’ view that the Taiwanese government was not responsive or tough enough and called for harsh action to be taken against the Philippines. Chinese netizens helped find more government Web sites in the Philippines and advocated united efforts to attack them.
In liberal, democratic Taiwan, netizens are entitled to express their stance on the issue and exert pressure on their government to redress what they perceive to be its inadequate and cowardly diplomatic reaction. So what is truly interesting about this cybercampaign is the voluntary participation of Chinese netizens.
Just recently, Chinese netizens also manifested their collective power by sending both serious and absurd petitions to the White House’s “We the People” Web site. One of the petitions was appealing to reopen the investigation into the poisoning of a college student 18 years ago, a case that has recently resurfaced as a hot issue in China. Some Chinese netizens believe that justice was not served because they think the culprit is highly connected to the Chinese Communist Party and has thus eluded punishment. Since they feel that justice is unlikely to be served in China, they have bypassed their domestic system to try and garner foreign attention and intervention.
Although the chance of Washington getting involved in a domestic Chinese issue involving corruption and injustice is as unlikely as justice being served in China, the White House petitioning and the cross-strait joint DDoS campaign demonstrate how the Internet has greatly empowered Chinese citizens. While it is true that Beijing can completely censor its netizens if it desires, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep the lid on the accumulating grievances of the Chinese people.
Chinese netizens’ ability to gather the 100,000 signatures required to receive an official response from Washington so rapidly shows that they can be mobilized for sociopolitical causes very quickly, a development that certainly should worry Beijing. It is hard for Beijing not to link this development to the role that the Internet played in the Arab Spring.
One can argue that netizens’ behavior is reckless and has interfered with their respective governments’ control over foreign affairs. There is also always a danger that their actions could see nationalism rekindled and misused in events such as the fisherman’s shooting. Not all online voices are rational and credible, but one cannot downplay the growing civilian power of netizens from both sides of the Taiwan Strait to serve as government watchdogs.
Yu-Wen Chen is a lecturer in government at University College Cork, Ireland. Joey Ying Lee is a graduate student in the Department of Transportation and Communication Management Science at National Cheng Kung University.