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[liberationtech] Message from Ricken on Avaaz cyberattack

Hal Roberts hroberts at
Tue May 8 18:56:32 PDT 2012

I think collecting email addresses, signing petitions, and collecting 
online donations is the core of Avaaz's mission:

The Avaaz community campaigns in 15 languages, served by a core team on 
6 continents and thousands of volunteers. We take action -- signing 
petitions, funding media campaigns and direct actions, emailing, calling 
and lobbying governments, and organizing "offline" protests and events 
-- to ensure that the views and values of the world's people inform the 
decisions that affect us all.

It's reasonable to disagree with that model of online activism, but I 
think that's a separate question from whether it's reasonable for them 
to collect money to improve their security in reaction to a ddos attack.


On 5/8/12 3:20 PM, Jim Youll wrote:
> I guess i'm missing something. apart from a place to fill in an
> e-mail address and name to "sign' a petition., and a place to donate
> money, i'm not clear on what the interactive features of the site
> are.
> On May 8, 2012, at 12:56 PM, Hal Roberts wrote:
>> I'm jumping in here because I think it's important to understand
>> the challenges of ddos protection at a more sophisticated level
>> than 'cloudflare is free!'.
>> If you are just trying to publish some set of static content, there
>> are a variety of methods you can use to do strong ddos protection
>> on the cheap.  All of them rely on getting lots of free or cheap
>> bandwidth, whether through a big hosting provider like blogger,
>> through a free cdn like cloudflare, or through a small human rights
>> oriented protection service that subsidizes the bandwidth cost in
>> some way.  That bandwidth just helps serve mostly static content,
>> though, and doesn't by itself keep an interactive site functional
>> in the face of an attack.
>> To keep the interactive features of a site (like up, you
>> have to make pretty deep changes in how the site works to be ddos
>> resistant.  And that usually involves working with some company or
>> organization that is expert in ddos protection.  That means hiring
>> a company like the one that avaaz is evidently using (I have no
>> specific knowledge of that company, but there is a whole class of
>> companies like it), and they are expensive.
>> And once you are having to embed the ddos protection into the
>> site's functionality rather than just its content, it's a lot
>> harder to leverage the free sources of content bandwidth.  I'm
>> pretty sure this is cloudflare's business model -- providing the
>> simple content bandwidth for free but leveraging their (likely
>> justly earned, though I haven't tested it) reputation in order to
>> charge for the expertise to protect more complex, interactive
>> sites.
>> When we queried services a couple of years ago for our ddos report,
>> we were routinely quoted numbers around $10k a month for protection
>> up to 10G of traffic.  There are lots of small hosting companies
>> that 'guarantee' protection up to 1G, but the guarantee is just to
>> get your currently monthly bill refunded, hardly what's needed in
>> the face of an attack.  And the routine quote of $10k / month was
>> just for the basic bandwidth and filtering systems, not including
>> any custom work on the interactive parts of the site.
>> There are certainly human rights oriented individuals and,
>> increasingly, smallish organizations who are providing these sorts
>> of ddos protection services.  I'm generally supportive of those
>> efforts and know of cases in which they have smartly done enormous
>> good.  But those individuals and orgs are all subsidized in some
>> way or another, through some combination of private and public
>> funding, donations of backbone bandwidth, and donations of their
>> own expert time.  They can be lifelines for small, independent
>> media and activist organizations who can't possibly afford the
>> going commercial rate of>  $10k / month for ddos protection.
>> But I would actually much rather see an relatively big organization
>> like Avaaz with its own strong fund raising capability raise its
>> own money to pay the actual cost for protecting its site than
>> relying on one of these subsidized sources (and thus driving out
>> other, smaller potential clients of those subsidized sources).
>> There's obviously need for Avaaz to be open about how its raising
>> and spending its money.  But I just disagree with the premise that
>> ddos protection is cheap or easy.
>> -hal
>> On 5/8/12 1:51 PM, jim youll wrote:
>>> Having dealt with these problems at various scales (but perhaps
>>> not at this scale-the facts are fuzzy) i am made very uneasy by
>>> the amount of money that is claimed both spent and additionally
>>> necessary for "DDOS protection." Those would be appropriate sums
>>> to pay an extortionist as "protection money" but they seem to be
>>> talking about technology spending here, and the whole story is
>>> just too much hyperbole and not much that seems reasonable at any
>>> scale, particularly the overt declaration that "DDOS protection"
>>> (whatever that means) is a linear function of money applied (
>>> above a threshold that imo should have been passed several tens
>>> of thousands of dollars ago)
>>> Yosem Companys<companys at>  wrote:
>>> *Message from Ricken on Avaaz cyberattack: *
>>> Hi all - I've heard there's some concern on your list about
>>> Avaaz's DDoS trouble. Thanks so much for the offers of help,
>>> much appreciated and I know some of you have been great allies in
>>> the past, but I think we've got great people working on it and
>>> the attack ended last week. Also surprised to hear some of you
>>> thought we made this up! If you want to ask a third party,
>>> Datagram, Arbor Networks and to lesser degree Croscon were the
>>> three groups involved that we asked for advice and help from.
>>> The other concern I heard is, was this an exaggerated
>>> fundraising ploy? Datagram told our tech team it was one of the
>>> largest attacks they'd seen, and if we hadn't just 8 weeks ago
>>> spent $35k on much fancier DDoS protection it would have
>>> completely disabled our site for days. They also said the
>>> attacker was constantly adapting to our defenses, the attack was
>>> surprisingly sustained, and a key origin appeared to be Amsterdam
>>> where we were told some groups for hire operated from -
>>> suggesting someone was paying for this. All that triggered our
>>> level of concern in writing the fundraiser. Over the last 6
>>> months, we've grown by an average of almost 300,000 people per
>>> week, so being disabled for a few days can be super costly. When
>>> we brought the guys from Arbor Networks in, they dialed down the
>>> concern a little bit, questioning the amsterdam part, and saying
>>> it was bigger than the large majority of DDoS attacks, but much
>>> larger ones were possible. But that last bit also dialed up our
>>> concern, because we knew we were at the limits of what we could
>>> handle and we didn't have budget for more. That had been the main
>>> reason for the fundraiser.
>>> And yes, of course we need the money - both for more DDoS
>>> protection and also for ramping up our tech security across the
>>> board - there was a short list of things in the email. That list
>>> also dealt with a wider range of needs, including the physical
>>> security of our staff in places like Russia and Lebanon, which
>>> also has a tech security component to it. Our community was
>>> extremely supportive so we ended up raising more than we need
>>> immediately, but this is the first appeal like this we've done in
>>> 5 years and we probably won't do another for a long while, so the
>>> money has to last. That's part of how online organizing works -
>>> you leverage bursts of engagement with particular campaigns and
>>> issues to support longer term objectives sustainably. If we find
>>> that our plans mean we don't anticipate using a lot of the money
>>> for the purpose raised, we email the donors and ask them to
>>> either request a refund or tell us what we can use the remainder
>>> of t he funds for.
>>> Hope that helps, and I hope you'll forgive us for a few days
>>> delay in replying and not being able to engage and collaborate
>>> with you all like we would if we were more a part of your
>>> community. We have a small team working in a dozen languages with
>>> staff spread across the world, and cover an enormous number of
>>> issues in an enormous number of countries. We run about 10-14
>>> campaigns per week, and every campaign we run has a relevant
>>> civil society community and often several in different countries
>>> (e.g. a French tech community is also demanding our engagement on
>>> this one, and even threatening us with a DDoS attack if we
>>> don't!). So while I am told that you have norms about
>>> collaboration and engagement among you, I regret that we can't
>>> follow them. Hope you'll forgive us and judge us by the quality
>>> of our work over time. Good luck to you with yours.
>>> Ricken
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>> -- Hal Roberts Fellow Berkman Center for Internet&  Society Harvard
>> University

Hal Roberts
Berkman Center for Internet & Society
Harvard University

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