PayPal attackers jailed in U.K., U.S. cases trudge along

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Two purported members of the Anonymous online collective were sentenced on Thursday in London to prison time for launching distributed denial-of-service attacks against PayPal.

According to reports, Christopher Weatherhead, 22, received 18 months in prison after being found guilty last month, and Ashley Rhodes, 28, earned seven months following a guilty plea. Peter Gibson, 24, received a six-month suspended sentence after admitting his involvement, but it was determined he didn't play as big of a role in the attacks. A fourth person, Jake Birchall, 18, also pleaded guilty and will be sentenced later.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the cases against the so-called "PayPal 14" are slowly moving along. In September 2011, each defendant, mostly 20-somethings with no criminal record who live in nine states and the District of Columbia, pleaded innocent to felony charges of damaging a protected computer and conspiracy. The attacks were launched in late 2010 out of retaliation for the online payment service company's decision to cut ties with WikiLeaks after the whistleblower group published secret U.S. diplomatic cables. 

Defense attorneys and federal prosecutors next week are planning to meet in San Jose, Calif. to discuss the U.S. cases, mostly to "narrow some tension over discovery," said New York attorney Stanley Cohen, who is representing one of the defendants, Mercedes Haefer, 21, on a pro-bono basis.

The accused face up to 15 years in prison, but Cohen told SCMagazine.com on Friday that none of the defendants sought to profit off the "actions" and that PayPal suffered no loss. He said DDoS attacks should be protected in this case under the First Amendment.

Prosecutors have said the attacks caused PayPal's site to become overwhelmed by rogue traffic during four days in December 2010 and cost the company $5.2 million, which included the price to upgrade its software and hardware systems to withstand future attacks. MasterCard and Visa also sustained similar attacks.

Calling the defendants "vulnerable, idealistic and fragile," Cohen said he hopes the recent suicide of coder and information activist Aaron Swartz, who was facing decades in prison for allegedly downloading millions of academic journals that he planned to make free, will play into the minds of prosecutors when he meets with them next week.

"Every time I talk to prosecutors, I have to remind them, these are kids," Cohen said. "Do you want to take the best and brightest and drive them to hang themselves?"

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