By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
December 17, 2009

A smartphone protest begun as blogger’s joke catches fire in the high schools of America

The most interesting thing about Operation Chokehold — a grassroots denial of service attack against AT&T’s (T) data network scheduled for Friday at 12 noon PST (3 p.m. EST) — may be who has signed on to take part.

You can see their shining faces on Facebook’s official Operation Chokehold page, which by Friday morning had attracted more than 4,000 fans.

Scroll down the members list for affiliations and you’ll see a few companies, a bunch of colleges and a whole lot of high schools: Carlmont High, Las Lomas High, Casa Grande High, Galileo High, Triton High, Roseburg High, Rancho Buena Vista High, Shadow Mountain High, Henry M. Gunn High, West Allegheny Senior High, Connellsville Area Senior High and so on.

That a satirical call to action has turned into a cellular children’s crusade may say more about the sorry state of activism in the U.S. than the true level of consumer rage. But if AT&T’s network crashes on Friday, it will be kids with Apple (AAPL) iPhones who have done it.

The whole thing started as a publicity stunt.

Last Friday Dan Lyons, a Newsweek writer better known as the pseudonymous Fake Steve Jobs, posted a blistering 1,900 word rant — framed as a  “not-so-brief chat” with AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson — that may be the best thing he’s written since his identity was revealed two years ago. The post was Lyons’ response to hints that AT&T might impose “incentives” to encourage iPhone users to stop overtaxing its network, and in the days that followed it was picked up by dozens of bloggers, twitterers and mainstream media outlets.

Encouraged by the attention, Lyons followed up Monday with a second Fake Steve Jobs post, this one built around what he claimed was a memo being circulated among the engineers at Apple:

Subject: Operation Chokehold
On Friday, December 18, at noon Pacific time, we will attempt to overwhelm the AT&T data network and bring it to its knees. The goal is to have every iPhone user (or as many as we can) turn on a data intensive app and run that app for one solid hour. Send the message to AT&T that we are sick of their substandard network and sick of their abusive comments. THe idea is we’ll create a digital flash mob. We’re calling it in Operation Chokehold. Join us and speak truth to power! (link)

The idea was dismissed as a silly stunt when it seemed that only a few hundred people might take up the cause. But when it became clear that thousands had signed on, things got serious.

On Tuesday, an AT&T spokesman told the Cult of Mac‘s Leander Kahney that “there is nothing amusing about advocating that customers attempt to deliberately degrade service on a network that provides critical communications services for more than 80 million customers.”

Network World’s John Cox went further, asking Lyons what he planned to tell the parents of toddlers who die on Friday because a call to 911 couldn’t get through.

Even the FCC weighed in. “”Threats of this nature are serious,” Jamie Barnett, chief of the agency’s public safety and homeland security bureau, said in a statement. “To purposely try to disrupt or negatively impact a network with ill-intent is irresponsible and presents a significant public safety concern.”

By Wednesday afternoon, Lyons seemed to be getting cold feet. “For the record,” he wrote, “this is all just a joke that has spun out of control and gained a life of its own.” Now Fake Steve is talking about cutting the protest back from one hour to 15 minutes. Or shutting off iPhones rather than using them to flood the network. Or asking the kids to duct tape their mouths and gather in flash mobs outside AT&T stores.

But judging from the comments on Facebook and elsewhere, it’s too late for that. “This is no time to go wobbly, Fake Steve,” wrote one poster. Added another: “The momentum this has created is beyond your control, and be prepared to accept the repercussions — good or bad.”

UPDATE: Not content with commentary from AT&T and the FCC, Lyons spent Thursday knocking out fake messages of support (or opposition) from Osama Bin Laden, Hugo Chavez, Rachel Uchitel, Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. See here.

See also:

[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]

You May Like