Hackers in the former Yugoslavia have been going at it. Croats, Serbs and Albanians are hacking into each others' Web sites and leaving nationalistic slogans. On online forums, bitter political debates have been ignited.
Digital hostilities have broken out in the Balkans
In December, Albanian Internet enthusiasts hacked into the Kosovo-based site of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Instead of the usual pictures of the monastery found there, the words "Kosovo will gain its independence" popped up on Web browsers.
In response, Serb hackers attacked the online offering of the Albanian capital Tirana and posted a stream of curses on the page. Over the past four weeks, some 100 Web sites from Serbia as well as about a dozen Albanian ones were illegally altered.
The trigger for these virtual attacks between Serbs and Croats in the second part of December was an incident in which a nationally minded Serb basketball player was refused entry to Croatia. Croatian Hackers let their dissatisfaction over the athlete's political stance be widely known by launching a virtual attack on the homepage of Serbia's largest private broadcaster, "Pink." The hackers posted the words "Greetings to Greater Serbia" on the site, accompanied by the Croatian flag and emblem.
That didn't please Serbian hackers and they in turn gained access to the official site of the Croatian world ski champion Janica Kostelic, leaving their own message of "Greetings to Croatia" behind, along with photographs of the Serbian national team. In the following two weeks, more than 80 Croatian and Serbian Web sites were manipulated, with each side posting more and less explicit nationalistic slogans on "enemy" sites.
Why and to what end?
The offenders from both countries told media outlets that there weren't any nationalistic motives behind their actions, but that they simply wanted to draw attention to their hacking abilities. "It doesn't matter to me whether I hack into a Serbian, Croatian, Albanian or whatever kind of site," one notorious Serbian hacker who calls himself "Acid Cookie" said in a radio interview.
Another one, who goes under the code name "DTM," explains that he was only interested in pointing out the security lapses in online networks in the Balkans. He said it "is a lot of fun when you can publish your own opinion on a site that has a million visitors a day."
But an exchange of opinion between the two peoples of the former Yugoslavia, who within the last decade and a half were engaged in a bloody civil war, can take forms besides illegal Web site changes. Popular sites such as that operated by the Belgrade broadcaster "B92" or the Croatian portal "index.hr" maintain forums in which current political affairs are discussed, even beyond national borders.
Veran Matic, head of Belgrade radio station B-92, in 1999
On the "B92" site, many Albanians have left messages arguing for the independence of Kosovo or against a division of the province which is currently under UN administration. On "index.hr" numerous Serbs, Montenegrins and Bosnians have become engaged participants in discussions about war crimes and coming to terms with the region's recent past.
Precursor for real meetings
Such Internet forums, according to Lorenz Graf, a sociologist who studies the Internet at the University of Cologne, are an important way in which opinions are formed these days. But they aren't without risks.
"I think that these forums present ways to inform political opinions," he said. "But when they are too general, they don't have a great deal of influence, because they aren't specific enough."
Cross-border Internet contacts between young computer users in the region also often serve as substitutes for real-time travel. Almost 10 years after the Balkans war, tourists from Serbia are seldom seen on the Croatian coast, just as one would be hard to find a Croat in Belgrade. But the brisk reporting in the region from several countries on the Internet means that many there have already formed a mental picture of their neighbors.
"I can well imagine that such forums can actually bring people closer together," said Graf. "Maybe the participants will say to each other one day, 'you seem nice, why don't we meet up'."
But it's not only the tolerant and open-minded who are posting in Internet forums, xenophobes have also found a platform there for their own opinions, although their entries are often quickly deleted by forum moderators. Still, these kinds of forums are increasingly becoming targets of hostile attacks because the computer programs that run them are easy prey for experts.
Using the Internet to spread hateful political messages is nothing new. During the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia in spring 1999, the central computers of the allied forces and the Pentagon were attacked and anti-war messages were posted on many Web sites.
However, in the Balkans, it is illegal to manipulate Web sites belonging to other people or organizations. Xenophobic pronouncements are also against the law, even in Internet forums. But to take action, authorities have to first learn the real name and physical address of the usually anonymous poster. Most of southeast Europe simply does not have the equipment, or the know-how, to do that.