Two Decades Ago, Cyber-Hippies Launched a DDoS Attack to Save Rave Culture
On Guy Fawkes Day 20 years ago, the Zippies launched an attack on the UK government, marking an early stage in hacktivism.
Twenty years ago today, Guy Fawkes Day, a group of ravers and new-age 'technopagans' targeted the UK government with a kind of DDoS attack. "Email bombing" clogged up government PCs, while fax machines spat out sheet after sheet of spam.
The act was a protest against Prime Minister John Major's Criminal Justice Bill, which sought to crack down on raves by outlawing outdoor gatherings playing music "wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats."
The backlog of messages was rumoured to have put networks out of action for over a week, an event which would go down in history as the Intervasion of the UK.
No one agrees on what happened, when and how
Except that this history is largely unwritten, and much of it is no longer online. The early act of online protest was organised through newsletters, bulletin board systems, and student networks, as well as leaflets and zines. Few traces remain: sites have been shut down, information scrubbed from the internet as the community grew up.
What's more, infighting still threatens the memory of the event and quite what happened is unclear. On its Wikipedia page, multiple factions are linked to the Intervasion, including UK internet activist group the Free Range Electrohippies and the Critical Art Ensemble collective. "No one agrees on what happened, when and how," said one activist I spoke to, who asked to remain anonymous and who I shall call Bob. I met Bob at an event on online activism, a field he has watched change in the decades since the Intervasion. "People are dead now, and memory for many of us wasn't a reliable thing to begin with," he added.
The group most often associated with it, however, is the Zippies, a cyber-hippie collective from the UK which spread to America. Inheritors to 1960s counterculture, the Zippies aimed to balance the hippie spirit with a tech-facilitated pragmatism, building their community online and in person at salons and raves.
Archive footage from the Megatripolis club night
The name was an acronym for "Zen Inspired Pagan Professional," with one of the "p"s later swapped out for "pronoid," which an LA Times article at the time described as something like the opposite of paranoid: "the sneaking suspicion that people are conspiring to help you."
With technogaian author Fraser Clark at their helm, they organized themselves through message boards and an email newsletter called The Memeticians Handbook, which reads at times like the label of a bottle of Dr Bronner's magic soap ("We are no longer in the drama of alienation–We are in the ecstasy of communication...").
Clark founded the Megatripolis night at London's Heaven nightclub, a cyber-rave community unto itself. "Think of it as a festival in a box," said Lucy Wills, who was part of the extended crew for the legendary club night. She said there were zine stands and video lectures, and internet access via a marauding crew member with a Mac strapped to his back. Rave became the gateway drug to a new set of values, encompassing politics, music, and technology.
Throughout 1994 a series of raves threatened to tip the UK over into anarchy. In March a protest against the Bill took over Hyde Park. Wills recalled, "We raved through the West End, in Trafalgar square, dancing in the fountains. We raved through the streets on the back of a flatbed truck with a fuck off soundsystem, until the riot police crowded everyone together into Hyde Park and charged them with horses."
This coincided more or less with the opening of Cyberia in London, one of the world's first cyber cafés offering internet access to those outside academia and the military. I spoke to its co-founder, Eva Pascoe, who recalled being instantly drawn into Zippie life. "We landed in the eye of the cyclone: the day we opened we started getting requests from the ravers to help out getting them connected from the fields or from Megatripolis to Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, and the California-based gurus of the hippie movement."
For Pascoe, supporting the Zippies was a political decision. "We knew the background story–the majority of the ravers were kids from very disadvantaged backgrounds. Newcastle, Doncaster, Sheffield, Manchester, Derby... those towns were ravaged by Thatcher's closures," he said. The move to London was one of reinvention: "They created this culturally rich movement of music, organic food, colorful clothing… Initially it wasn't tech-based, but they were forced to learn tech out of necessity."
Meanwhile, buoyed by a Wired cover story in May 1994, a delegate of UK Zippies toured the US in an avocado-coloured van, spreading the word. By Guy Fawkes Night, the Zippie tour had apparently somehow secured computers and networks to launch an online attack across the Atlantic. Previously, Zippies had used Pascoe's Cyberia Café, but suddenly, Pascoe said, "there was clear involvement of a US-based organization providing them with more, and better equipment."
She recalled that plain-clothes police officers had begun to stake out Megatripolis looking for protestors and hackers. "The movement against the Bill was gathering momentum as the government was insisting on stop and search, particularly on ravers and ethnic minorities," she said. "It was clear from the atmosphere that something was going to explode."
This is where accounts of the Intervasion start to differ. The attack did not "shut down government websites" so much as shut off government communication. Few UK government websites existed at this stage, and Bob said the DDoS targeted fax machines as much as it did computers. Pascoe described it as "done in a hack manner: show that you can, but do no damage."
Originating in the US and from the Zippie outpost of Oxfordshire, according to the activists I spoke to, the attack lasted over a week. Bob explained its mechanic: "It was about crashing the service provider that was the gateway… all government email went to a server on their network, this was shared with the House of Parliament's LAN so that when it crashed it took out not only the fax machines but the LAN too. And the faxes that got through kept the machines spewing garbage for about a week afterward, because they turned them off without dumping the cache."
"It was listed as a physical crime because it broke physical kit," said Bob, who despairs of the lack of clarity surrounding the Intervasion (even the talk page for its Wikipedia entry has been scrubbed). "But I know that the legacy of the Cybervasion means that most of those I worked with then are still activists in some way now. Mainly poor-as-mice ones," he added, "but still socially conscious."
It's doubtful that the Intervasion really was a world-first use of technology for civil disobedience, as its Wikipedia page claims, but it was a landmark moment, where the geeks crossed over onto the dance floor and took their place in popular culture. The Criminal Justice Bill united disparate causes in opposition, and among its side effects was a union of online and offline life.
Suddenly dance music, early internet culture, anti-consumerism, and new age spirituality were politicized in one grand experiment, laying the grounds for the hacktivism of today.
Correction 11/4: This story initially suggested Lucy Wills was a contact of Bob. In a follow-up, she clarified that she is most accurately described as a member of the extended group around the Megatripolis club night, and we've updated the story to reflect that.