PayPal DDoS attackers plead guilty, some may walk free

A counsel for one of the defendants called it a win for civil disobedience

Anonymous members, charged with a distributed denial-of-service attack on PayPal, entered a plea Thursday that could see some of them walk free at sentencing next December.

The 14 persons were charged in July, 2011 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Jose division for a DDoS attack on PayPal's servers in December 2010 in retribution for the payment processor's decision to terminate the donation account of whistle-blower site WikiLeaks.

They were charged with conspiring among themselves and with other known and unknown persons to commit "intentional damage to a protected computer" under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

A DDoS is an attempt to make a website inaccessible by overloading it with requests and disrupting the target server.

Of the 14 defendants, 11 have pleaded guilty to one felony charge and one misdemeanor, Stanley Cohen, counsel for one of the defendants, Mercedes Renee Haefer, said late Thursday.

Under the agreement approved by the court, the sentencing for these charges was adjourned for one year. The felony charge could be dismissed at the end of the year, if there are no new problems like arrests during the period, Cohen said.

The defendants would be conditionally discharged for the misdemeanor when they could get credit for time served, Cohen added.

The 11 defendants will, however, each pay restitution of about US$5,600.

Two defendants admitted to a misdemeanor but not a felony, as they did not want a felony on their records, which will require them to serve up to 90 days in jail when the sentencing comes up next year.

Cohen said the deal was a clear win for civil disobedience as the defendants had admitted to doing what they believed was appropriate, and accepted the consequences of their conduct.

A 14th defendant faces criminal charges in a federal court in Virginia in connection with other alleged DDoS attacks.

In a post in The Huffington Post this week, Pierre Omidyar, chairman and founder of eBay, the parent of PayPal, said prosecutors need to look at the actual damage caused by each defendant and it would be unjust to hold 14 persons, dubbed the PayPal 14, "accountable for the actions of a thousand (or however many other people were part of the same attack)."

"Prosecutors should also look at the circumstances of each defendant, and examine whether or not they were aware of the excessive impact their actions might have," Omidyar wrote, while stressing that the views are his own and not of eBay. "They may have believed they were participating in a legitimate online protest and not aware of the multiplicative effect of the tools they were installing."

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