Days after a massive DDoS attack on a citizen-led online voting system, news sites Apple Daily Hong Kong and Taiwan were paralyzed by hackers. The two newspapers are owned by Next Media, one of Hong Kong's largest news corporations. Next Media founder Jimmy Lai Chi-ying is a supporter of the citizen- led Occupy Central Campaign that calls for a genuine universal voting rights in elections for Hong Kong's Chief Executive.
The new site has been a main target of DDoS attacks in the past because of its pro-democracy stance. But the scale of attack this time was so large that it overwhelmed the DDoS protection service provider's system, according to Next Media's Chief operating officer Tim Yiu. The attack began at around 3 am on June 18 and both Hong Kong and Taiwan's Apple Daily sites were paralyzed for more than ten hours. The news organizations relied on social media, including Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, to run news updates.
Jimmy Lai believes that the attack came from Beijing, in an attempt to silence voices supporting the Occupy Central Campaign and the upcoming civil referendum that could bring about change to the local election system. Both newspapers have reported on the campaign extensively and in the past few months, Jimmy Lai has attended several events showing his support for the civil referendum and Occupy Central Campaign. The newspaper issued a statement condemning the attack:
…we have reason to strongly suspect the attack was carried out by hackers from China, trying to suppress Hong Kong people’s determination to fight for democracy and to attack the pro-universal suffrage Next Media group.
The Hong Kong Journalist Association also issued a statement condemning the attack as a violent attempt to silence voices of dissent. It also urged the Hong Kong police to investigate the attack as an incident of cybercrime.
Given the enormous scale of the attack, online independent and citizen media platforms in Hong Kong are preparing for the worst to happen during the civil referendum and the upcoming Occupy Central civic disobedience campaign. Though news sites can continue to distribute their news via social media platforms, prolonged disruptions would certainly affect advertising, which is their main source of revenue.
In addition to the DDoS attack, Next Media has been suffering from various forms of political pressure this year. Last month, two major banks HSBC and Standard Chartered withdrew advertising from the newspaper and a senior Next Media executive said that the banks were under pressure from pro-Beijing officials. Back in June 2013, someone crashed a stolen vehicle into the gate of Jimmy Lai's residence in Kowloon and left an axe and a knife behind.
To cope with the cyberattack, the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Programme decided to extend the civil referendum voting period from 20-22 of June to 20-29.