Giorgi: 'The hackers want me to stop writing the truth'
A Tbilisi-based blogger became global news last week when a concerted effort to muzzle him brought down Facebook and Twitter. So will Giorgi be silenced? No, he tells William Dunbar
Monday 10 August 2009
Giorgi doesn't seem like the sort of man who'd be at the centre of a massive internet meltdown. When we meet in a trendy Tbilisi nightspot, the unassuming 34-year-old looks exhausted. "It's crazy. I was on the phone the whole day. I'm very tired," he says.
The last few days have all been crazy for Giorgi. At 5.30pm on Thursday he was preparing to add a post to his page on the popular blogging service LiveJournal. When he was unable to access the site, he tried to post a message on Facebook, telling his friends that there was a problem with his blog. When that didn't work Giorgi tried his Twitter account, again, to no avail. Giorgi assumed that there was a problem with the websites, but when he checked his email an hour later, he realised that something was very wrong.
Hundreds of thousands of spam messages had been sent from his gmail account, inviting recipients to visit his blog. His inbox was being flooded with automated responses – so many that Giorgi was unable to delete them before more arrived. A group of as-yet unidentified hackers had tried to kick him off the web: he had become the victim of a massive cyber attack, but he was not the only one affected.
The attacks paralysed some of the most popular sites on the global web. Twitter was overwhelmed by the distributed denial-of-services attacks. The site's estimated 10 million users were unable to access it for several hours. Facebook, which has more than 30 million users, was also affected, as was Google.
But why did the hackers target this slightly bookish economics lecturer? While fairly well known among blogging circles in Georgia, Giorgi is no internet sensation. His blog has about two thousand subscribers, and attracts around two hundred hits a day. With such a modest following, it seems bizarre that he should be the victim of a massive cyber attack.
Giorgi writes about politics, specifically about Georgian politics, and the relationship between Russia and Georgia. The post he tried to add on Thursday was going to focus on last year's Russo–Georgian war, a conflict for which Giorgi squarely blames Russia. Giorgi thinks it is no coincidence that the cyber attacks hit as Georgia prepared to commemorate the first anniversary of the war. "Maybe this is the Russians celebrating one year since the war," he speculates. "Maybe the hackers want me to stop writing the truth about what happened."
During that war, cyber attacks that probably originated in Russia blocked service to hundreds of Georgian websites. Giorgi thinks that something similar might be happening now. "Only Russia has a big problem with Georgia, and I wrote many things critical about their political system," Giorgi says. The sheer scale of the attack leads him to suspect some level of involvement by the Russian security services: "It is not possible that only five or 10 people could shut down LiveJornal, Facebook and Twitter."
That's why Giorgi is being cautious about his personal security. I am the first journalist to meet him face-to-face, and he refuses to give his surname or to be photographed. "I have a family, a mother, father, wife and children. I don't know what will happen tomorrow," he says. "If it is possible for them to shut down three huge servers, then anything is possible."
Though Giorgi lives in Tbilisi, he is originally from Sukhumi, the capital of Georgia's breakaway province of Abkhazia. His internet handle is 'Cyxymu', a rendering of the Cyrillic name for the city in Latin script. Along with 250,000 other ethnic Georgian inhabitants of the region, Giorgi fled Abkhazia in 1993 after separatists defeated Georgian forces and declared independence. For the past four years, Giorgi has run his blog as a place for people with connections to Abkhazia to discuss issues and ideas. "When I created it, the blog was an open platform for Georgians, Abkhazians, Russians to talk about the future," he says.
Like almost all of those displaced from Abkhazia, Giorgi passionately believes that his homeland should be re-united with Georgia, and is critical of what he sees as a Russian attempt to annex the region. Although he has been described in the press as an anti-Russian blogger, he insists this is not the case. "My first language is Russian. When I speak Georgian everyone can see. I am an eighth Russian. I am not anti-Russian; I am anti-Putin."
Giorgi wanted his blog to be a place for people of all political standpoints to exchange views. "People of all opinions have the right to leave comments on my posts. This is the plus of the blogosphere." But Giorgi's experience also demonstrates the vulnerability of web 2.0 to attack. His accounts are still blocked, and he is not hopeful they will come back on line anytime soon. Nonetheless, there is a sense of cheeky defiance about Giorgi. "I am proud because these bad people attacked me. It means I am doing a good thing" he says with a wry smile. "I will create a new blog in LiveJournal. If it will be under attack, I'll create another. If that is attacked, I'll create another."
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