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Archive of Our Own Returns After 48-Hour DDoS Attack

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo: Shutterstock

It was 27 hours — more than a full day — with no fan fiction. No Alternative Universes featuring favorite ships. No Enemies to Lovers. No Enemies to Friends to Lovers. No Only One Bed. There was a Slow Burn, but it didn’t relate to any stories on the beloved fanfic site Archive of Our Own. Instead, that’s how avid readers felt while waiting to see how long the DDoS (distributed denial-of-service) attack that struck the site on July 10 would last. We were all eager to get back to our Five Times They Didn’t and One Time They Did fic.

But everyone can breathe again — for now. The site is back up after spending parts of July 10 and 11 returning a blank page and a 429 error to any of the 5 million monthly users who might have been visiting. The attack was evidently perpetrated by self-proclaimed hacktivist group Anonymous Sudan, which claimed responsibility in a July 11 statement that it is “against all forms of degeneracy, and the site is full of disgusting smuts and other LGBTQ+ and NSFW things.”

Anonymous Sudan opened the statement with “the reason of our attack is simple,” according to a screenshot from its Facebook group as taken and reposted to Twitter by @Abbas_BadeStan.

“It’s part of our campaign targeting companies in the United States. The operators of this site is ‘Organization for the Transformative Works (OTW)’ who are registered in the United States,” it continued. “We bring you good news that we will continue attacking you for hours on end.” On July 11 (per the screenshot), the group issued a ransom request. “You have exactly 24 hours from the time of posting of this offer to fill up this bitcoin wallet with 30,0000 US dollar,” it demanded in a follow-up Telegram note.

If that’s its position, the group is definitely familiar with Archive of Our Own’s tags. Overall, the most well-known (and often derided) fanfic crossovers into the monoculture have been Fifty Shades of Grey, which started out as Twilight AU, and the Harry Potter magnum opus My Immortal, in which Harry and Draco fight over a vampire witch who’s not like other girls because she has purple eyes and listens to My Chemical Romance. Both of those stories were on rival site — but AO3 is where you go for the good stuff. I don’t know why authors with usernames that are just references to a fandom with a number tacked onto the end somehow nail the queer experience in a way I haven’t found through books from major publishers. From a clinical UX-design perspective, AO3 is also the easier fanfic site to navigate.

AO3 is run by volunteers and manages to exist — i.e., to host more than 11 million works spanning roughly 57,000 fandoms — on donations alone. The response from AO3’s audience to the attack underscores just how emotionally connected its users are to the site, writing thousands of tweets in just that day of downtime. The AO3s were being the sad ant with a little bindle slung over his shoulder mournfully making a tearful walk over to Wattpad (an app where the fic quality is low and there are ads every two chapters).

Following the attack, an AO3 spokesperson told The Verge, “All we can say at present is that we have not been directly contacted by anyone regarding the DDoS attack, so we have no confirmed reason of why the site is being targeted,” adding that they couldn’t guarantee the site won’t go down again. “Cybersecurity experts believe the group claiming responsibility is lying about their affiliation and reasons for attacking websites,” @AO3_Status tweeted on July 11. “View the group’s statements with skepticism.”

Anonymous Sudan emerged around January 2023 and has claimed a number of DDoS attacks, including against Microsoft (specifically Outlook) on June 5. I’m just now realizing that using my work computer, which favors Outlook and Microsoft Teams, and my habit of reading AO3 at work may be connected, though the tech company denied that. (Anonymous Sudan, it’s worth noting, is not affiliated with the better-known hacker collective Anonymous.) Cybersecurity firm CyberCX has posited that Anonymous Sudan is likely not an authentic hacktivist organization or even related to the country of Sudan. What we do know is that part of its mission is evidently to separate LGBTQ+ nerds from the Wicked Musical Elphaba/Glinda fics on their favorite niche site. Based on that alone, the group is destined to suffer the wrath of stans worldwide.

Archive of Our Own Returns After 48-Hour DDoS Attack