See that over-the-top, anti-Obama comment on Facebook or your favorite blog? It could be a paid Russian troll. See the picture above? He’s serving a life sentence without parole because he started an illegal website. He claims to be a Libertarian, but he certainly made a ton of money (the Feds claim over $100 million) selling–well, everything, sort of like Amazon, but much smaller and very much in the shadows of the “dark web.”
What do Russian trolls have to do with a guy in prison for life? One of them was caught by the Feds, while the other is about to get more control of the entire Internet than ever before.
I think you can guess which one is making out like a bandit.
U.S. District Court Judge Katherine B. Forrest sentenced Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht to life in prison without parole, for founding a website based on selling anything to anyone who wanted it—legal or not. Silk Road quickly turned into a drug and contraband bazaar, using nearly untraceable Bitcoin electronic payments to deliver anonymous packages to anonymous people who wished to remain unknown (to law enforcement at least).
As terrible as that is, does it rise to the level of a serial killer? Does it make Ulbricht, a baby-faced 31-year-old computer programmer from Texas, some kind of Tony Montana sitting at a desk with behind a mountain of cocaine brandishing an Uzi? Wired reported last month:
Ulbricht had stood before the court just minutes earlier in navy blue prison clothes, pleading for a lenient sentence. “I’ve changed. I’m not the man I was when I created Silk Road,” he said, as his voice grew hoarse with emotion and cracked. “I’m a little wiser, a little more mature, and much more humble.”
“I wanted to empower people to make choices in their lives…to have privacy and anonymity,” Ulbricht told the judge. “I’m not a sociopathic person trying to express some inner badness.”
Judge Forrest’s condemning a man who claimed to create the kind of market Libertarians find politically attractive–one with zero government regulation–to a fate one-needle short of the death penalty fired up the already incendiary Libertarian crowd, and some of them made some really trollish comments on various websites.
Now the Department of Justice has subpoenaed Reason.com to give up two trolls who vented in comments on its site that Judge Katherine Forrest should “be taken out back and shot,” or thrown into a wood-chipper.
If Ulbricht claims that he isn’t a sociopath, then how much more are two trolls in whom DOJ has taken an interest not sociopaths?
Are the Reason.com Comments “True Threats?” No. NO. AND HELL NO!
“True Threats” are those threats that are outside the protection of the First Amendment; they are not mere political hyperbole or bluster. For instance, in 1967, when Mr. Watts said that if he were drafted the first man he’d want in his rifle sights was President Lyndon B. Johnson, that wasn’t a true threat: it was conditional political hyperbole. In other words, it was mere angry bluster of the sort no reasonable person would take to be a serious threat.3
What of these comments on Reason.com, then? I submit that they are very clearly not true threats — that this is not even a close call.
So, apart from the absurd claim of a credible threat against the judge for posting troll comments, how can the DOJ even hope to find these commenters, and how can Reason.com’s records help? Really, anyone can be a dog on the other side of the keyboard.
Fake trolls who are paid to post fake comments peppered with lies and propaganda, deviants looking for targets, and criminals looking for marks cruise the Internet daily, and the more sophisticated among them use technology to cover their tracks. The worst of these criminal enterprises originate in Russia or China. But the Russians are truly masters at disinformation and propaganda.
Probably nobody knows this better than writer Adrian Chen, who earlier this month published a piece in The New York Times Magazine titled “The Agency.”
Talk about scary: Chen found himself in St. Petersburg, Russia, tracking down real people in a nondescript office building whose entire job is to post trolling content favorable to Russia. They run fake (but real) websites focusing on everything from health and fitness to spiritism, slipping in news bits and commentary promoting the Russian government’s point of view. They invent fake disasters, news stories, complete with fake versions of American news websites, witness reports, videos, and tweets.
The Internet Research Agency also employs hundreds of trolls who comment on blog posts all over the world, but mostly in the U.S. Chen met with a former troll.
Savchuk told me she shared an office with about a half-dozen teammates. It was smaller than most, because she worked in the elite Special Projects department. While other workers churned out blandly pro-Kremlin comments, her department created appealing online characters who were supposed to stand out from the horde. Savchuk posed as three of these creations, running a blog for each one on LiveJournal. One alter ego was a fortuneteller named Cantadora. The spirit world offered Cantadora insight into relationships, weight loss, feng shui — and, occasionally, geopolitics. Energies she discerned in the universe invariably showed that its arc bent toward Russia. She foretold glory for Vladimir Putin, defeat for Barack Obama and Petro Poroshenko. The point was to weave propaganda seamlessly into what appeared to be the nonpolitical musings of an everyday person.
In fact, she was a troll. The word “troll” was popularized in the early 1990s to denounce the people who derailed conversation on Usenet discussion lists with interminable flame wars, or spammed chat rooms with streams of disgusting photos, choking users with a cloud of filth. As the Internet has grown, the problem posed by trolls has grown more salient even as their tactics have remained remarkably constant. Today an ISIS supporter might adopt a pseudonym to harass a critical journalist on Twitter, or a right-wing agitator in the United States might smear demonstrations against police brutality by posing as a thieving, violent protester. Any major conflict is accompanied by a raging online battle between trolls on both sides.
The Russians are indeed very good at their craft. An investigative journalist going up against a professional intelligence organization likely ends only one way, and this encounter ended predictably bad for Chen. He arranged to meet with Katarina Aistova, a former agency employee, but the meeting was a set-up to place him with a notorious neo-Nazi, who she claimed was her brother, there for security.
I had to admire the brazenness of the scheme. I remembered how, at the restaurant, Aistova had sat next to me so I had to twist around to talk to her, while Maximov sat silently across from us. Apparently they had arranged themselves so it could appear, from the right perspective, that I was meeting Maximov alone. I emailed Aistova to ask her to explain what happened. She responded only: “I would also like you to explain yourself and the situation!!” (A few weeks later, when I tried calling her by phone, she pretended I had the wrong number.)
The Russians smeared Chen all over their news to make it look like he was there to meet with Maximov, and never even saw Aistova. Clever, but Chen published his story anyway.
So an American running an illegal website in the “dark web” of the Internet is locked up by the Feds for essentially forever, while an entire battalion of anonymous trolls ply their trade in public without so much as a nod from their comfortable cubicles in St. Petersburg.
How are those two things related?
The same Obama administration that locked up Ulbricht (and rightly so, although the sentence is debatable), is giving away the Holy Grail of Internet control to the rest of the world–which will certainly increase Russia’s influence.
That Holy Grail of Internet control is called ICANN. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is arguably the most powerful company in the world. It controls the worldwide database and trusted servers which the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) uses to put the “dot com” in the Web.
Without IANA’s “root” servers, nothing on the net would be in the least bit trustworthy, if it worked at all. This means your bank’s website, your news website, your email, might not really be the sites you think you’re connecting to. If IANA were compromised, that would be very bad news.
Since the Internet’s beginning, America has always been the honest broker controlling ICANN and IANA. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has for 25 years been the sole contractor for ICANN. But in 2014, Obama’s Department of Commerce announced that ICANN would have to find another contractor to perform its functions: when its contract is up this year, NTIA will not be offering a renewal.
What does this mean? Cyberspace expert, attorney and Heritage Foundation fellow Paul Rosenweig wrote in The New Republic:
For me, the bottom line seems relatively clear—despite the strum und drang of recent weeks, the United States has been a fundamentally good steward of the network. It has fostered innovation, openness, freedom and growth. Not perfectly to be sure and not always without a healthy dollop of self-interest, but at its core the US management of the network has been more benign than venal, with the result that we have today a vibrant network with more good than bad in it.
The transition to ICANN management may well upset that happy vision. While I am more optimistic about ICANN than I might be about the ITU as a new steward, the capabilities and political strength of the institution are unproven and remain a question mark. If, as the Chinese proverb goes, it is a curse to live in “interesting” times, I fear we may be facing several years of living dangerously.
When the U.S. no longer controls the basic data structure of the Internet, countries like Russia have even more opportunity to become “troll farms,” create fake web content that for all intents and purposes, is the real thing, and operate dark web sites many times the size of Silk Road.
Whatever progress the Feds made by closing Silk Road (Silk Road 2.0 has already come and gone, its founder arrested, and Silk Road 3.0 has taken its place), is outweighed by the probability that government-sponsored organized crime, or direct action by America’s adversaries, will make the Internet a far less safe place for everyone.
The paradox is clearer than what Matthew McConaughey’s character in “Interstellar” found inside the tesseract at the heart of a black hole. Ulbricht is sentenced to life without parole by the U.S. court system for doing the very things that the Russians are paid to do, and shortly will be enabled by the Obama administration to do even better.
Now it all makes sense. Well, actually, not at all.