A surge in online traffic after a protest against the Church of Scientology in Sydney this week overloaded a server and temporarily crashed hundreds of websites.
The protest on Sunday was one of the first in a series of global demonstrations against the church organised by a loose collection of internet users known as “Anonymous”.
Worldwide traffic to pictures of the protest published on an Australian photography website overwhelmed hosting company Digitalis and temporarily prevented access to hundreds of its clients’ sites.
A link to the images was posted on an internet message forum used by members of Anonymous to discuss the protests as they occurred over the world.
The surge in traffic drove the hosting company’s bandwidth usage up by 900 per cent in the hours after the images went online, according to a customer support message sent to the photographer.
“A sudden surge of traffic relating to your image hosting… has caused a denial of service attack of sorts, disrupting service to hundreds of other customers for several hours,” the message said.
“Hundreds of other websites could not be accessed during this incident due to an overload in HTTP requests.”
Digitalis customer support representative Denis Kukic said the website had not been created to deal with large amounts of traffic and that the problem had been responded to promptly.
“We had no advance notice that there was going to be a sudden surge of traffic or that there would be more than 100 times the average traffic that this customer’s website normally consumes,” he said.
“We specialise in Australian-based shared virtual hosting and have been doing so for the past 7 years with a great service uptime record and thousands of satisfied customers.”
The Sydney protest was one of 93 demonstrations that members of Anonymous claim to have held against the church, which they allege exploits its members and suppresses free speech.
The Church of Scientology has branded Anonymous “cyber-terrorists” and said it was the group who were suppressing free speech by attacking Scientology websites.
Large numbers of people searching the web for reports on the protests were directed to independent and community-based websites in the absence of traditional media coverage.
While reports on the protests did not appear on major websites such as The New York Times, The Guardian or The Times, hundreds of thousands of readers were able to follow events as they unfolded.
Amateur reporters and people who had participated in the protests published news and images on blogs and user-generated websites like YouTube, Wikinews, Flickr and Digg within hours of each event.
Within 24 hours of the first demonstration, a search for “Scientology” and “protest” on Google’s Blog Search returned more than 4000 results and more than 2000 images on photo-sharing website Flickr.
In the same period, video footage from protests in more than 25 cities was uploaded to YouTube.