Whatever you think about the particular actions of the people involved, it's clear that the sentences are completely disproportionate - in many cases, hackers are being threatened with longer terms than those meted out to just about every category of serious criminal, including murderers. So the question has to be: why?
Basically, this is payback time. For the last twenty years, governments around the world have watched with horror as this strange new Internet thing gathered strength and power, until it reached the point where individuals could use it to come together to challenge many fundamental aspects of governmental control. In particular, the Internet could be used to disseminate information that was inconvenient or even downright dangerous for governments. That made the people who got hold of that information real enemies of the state - at least in the eyes of the governments concerned.
The idea of the current round of extreme sentences is to send out a message to other hackers and activists: the same could happen to you. The aim is to chill the use of the Internet to expose information that governments around the world would rather not have out in the open.
One of the clearest manifestations of a conscious plan to criminalise online activity is the sudden efflorescence of the "cyber" prefix. Today, we constantly hear about "cyberwar", "cyberattacks" and "cybersecurity", usually in the context of absurd claims, as in the following, which comes from the US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper:
Cyber attacks and cyber espionage pose a greater potential danger to U.S. national security than al-Qaida and other militants that have dominated America's global focus since Sept. 11, 2001, the nation's top intelligence officials said Tuesday.
For the first time, the growing risk of computer-launched foreign assaults on U.S. infrastructure, including the power grid, transportation hubs and financial networks, was ranked higher in the U.S.intelligence community's annual review of worldwide threats than worries about terrorism, transnational organized crime, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Wow, are we frightened yet? But then he makes the mistake of getting a little more specific:
Clapper said computer hackers "could access some poorly protected U.S. networks that control core functions, such as power generation" although their ability to cause "high-impact, systemic disruptions will probably be limited."
So in fact this isn't quite Armageddon, since "high-impact, systemic disruptions will probably be limited." Moreover, he admits that what he is talking about here are "poorly protected U.S. networks". In other words, the problem isn't "cyber" anything, it's just everyday incompetence on the part of the people running these important systems. Indeed, this lies at the heart of the case involving "Weev", discussed above, who is being subject to exemplary punishment for exposing a serious security hole in AT&T's system.
Sign up for CIO Asia eNewsletters.