Armchair Activism sans APster.
profrv at nex.net.au
Thu May 6 19:19:38 PDT 1999
By Maria Nguyen
August 16 2002
Good Friday. When the barbed wire fencing at Woomera's detention centre was
cut loose and scaled by desperate detainees who quickly blended into a
throng of supportive protesters, federal authorities and local police were
almost powerless to curb the mass exodus.
Earlier, more than 1000 people from across the country had camped outside
the small South Australian desert town to demonstrate against mandatory
Even before images of the Woomera escape were televised to lounge rooms
across Australia and the world, the Internet was feeding a global audience
first-hand accounts of the week-long protest, billed the "Festival of
Freedoms", which included photos and streaming audio and video clips of the
Months earlier, the Woomera2002 Web site had issued a "global call to
solidarity", inviting people from around the world to join the Australian
Those who couldn't make it were able to follow events from their PC, via
on-site audio and video feeds that were regularly uploaded on the activist
media site, Indymedia. Meanwhile, Virtual People Smuggler had become the
interactive forum for armchair activists from far flung places to pledge
Increasingly, the Internet is proving itself as an empowering medium for
activists who struggle against governments, global economic organisations
and mega corporations.
Whether it's organising and mobilising real world demonstrations or
providing an online alternative to participating in street protests, the
Net has become a key weapon.
Its speed, global reach and uncontrolled nature makes it the perfect tool
for small groups trying to establish networks of like-minded people across
the globe and promote their agenda to effect social and political change.
"The computer screen is something that separates you from the real world
can also connect you to the real world," says Graham Meikle, associate
lecturer in Media and Communications at Sydney's Macquarie University.
"Using Internet technology allows you to make new connections with other
people which wouldn't have been possible otherwise."
In his new book Future Active: Media Activism and the Internet (Pluto
Press), Meikle describes the preparations for the WTO anti-globalisation
protests in Seattle four years earlier as a significant example of the Net
being used "to organise, publicise and mobilise". As well as complementing
the fierce street demonstrations, the Internet was also used as a
non-violent vehicle for dissent, or electronic civil disobedience, with
email (described by Meikle as the "the killer app" for Internet activism),
virtual sit-ins (causing Web traffic jams), and independent online media,
the main tools of the online activist or "hactivist".
For activists such as Savanna (not her real name), a member of Sydney-based
action group Cat at lyst - a collective of volunteers providing tech advice
and support to activists seeking an online presence - the Net provides a
convenient alternative to street demonstrations.
"I've been an activist for a long time but I've never felt comfortable
protesting in the street. The Net allows me to contribute and make a
difference in a way I'm more comfortable with - with the Internet there's
always another way," Savanna says. "More and more people are turning to the
Net. For example, to email politicians. They're also using it to organise
protests when they do go to the streets."
And organising is what the Net does best according to Phil Griffiths from
Canberra's Refugee Action Committee, a lobby group working to end mandatory
detention in Australia.
"It's great as an organisational and mobilising tool - especially email,
which is very important to our campaigns in terms of spreading information
very fast and keeping activists in touch with one another," Griffiths says.
"For instance, earlier this year when the hunger strikes were on at Woomera
and other detention centres, we used our email network to organise a
protest outside the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs,
which got 100 people at a lunchtime protest at two days notice."
Meikle also believes email is the most effective tool for Net activists.
"It's simple and fast, cheap and effective. And the best activist Web sites
are also like that - a local project like www.boat-people.org, for
instance, is effective because it's very simple and direct," he says.
For others, however, cyberspace is the protest battleground itself. The
popular weapon of choice is the virtual sit-in, also known as a client-side
distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, where online protesters
inundate a Web site's server with a constant stream of bogus requests,
effectively slowing or shutting the site down.
In November 1999, when online toy store eToys Inc sued Zurich-based digital
arts group etoy.com, a bitter online war broke out. Despite the fact that
etoy.com was operating long before the American e-tailer went online, the
Toy giant took legal action to stop the artists trading under the similar
domain name, citing consumer confusion. Activist groups around the world
were incensed. They saw it as a David and Goliath battle and embraced it as
the definitive example of corporate greed versus art and free expression.
Eighty-one days of online campaigning, which included massive global
virtual sit-ins, saw eToys' share price plummet from $US67 ($125) to $US19.
The company filed for bankruptcy in March 2001. (Visit www.rtmark.com for a
detailed history of the "Toywar".)
While cases of online activism bringing about the demise of an entire
corporation are rare, other big names such as Buy.com, E*Trade, Amazon,
eBay, Yahoo and CNN have also been targets of disruptive virtual sit-ins.
And in the case of the Seattle anti-globalisation protests, Internet
activist group The Electrohippies shut down the World Trade Organisation's
Web site after staging a five-day virtual sit-in, which involved 450,000
other online activists.
The increasingly fervent anti-globalisation sentiment has also seen
government sites such as the White House and the Mexican Embassy in London
targeted. In the latter case, a popular virtual sit-in software program
called FloodNet was downloaded and used by more than 18,000 political
activists from 46 countries in a co-ordinated attack on the Mexican Embassy
Web site in 1999. When activists installed the free program onto their PCs,
their modems automatically and repeatedly requested Web pages (that often
didn't exist), from the Embassy's server. It did this continuously every
few seconds, until the weight of the requests shut the server down.
However, the program's creator, human rights activist Ricardo Dominguez of
the Electronic Disturbance Theater, describes FloodNet as "Net art" - an
online protest performance, rather than a deliberate action to crash a Web
For activists such as Dominguez, taking protests online is a non-violent
show of people power - the ultimate act of electronic civil disobedience.
"The great thing about Internet protest is that it's just about the most
peaceful kind of civil disobedience you can do," says Ian Walker, producer
of the documentary, The Hactivists which screened earlier this year on ABC
TV. "But, I guess that's also its great limitation - it seems that unless
you're doing some decent amount of damage to someone's property or finances
no-one sits up and takes notice. The catch is, when you do that, you
immediately lose the PR war; but there is a danger of creating a new
generation of 'armchair activists' who don't engage in a more
socially-active way with the issues they're protesting against."
However, there are those who don't have the luxury of taking their
grievances to the streets. It was not until 1997, when RAWA, the
Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, used the Net to
voice their struggle against violent discrimination that the world realised
the extent of the Taliban's oppressive rule. By using cameras and videos,
hidden beneath their burquas, RAWA members risked their lives by taking
photos and capturing video footage of the beatings and killings endured by
Afghan women. After these images were uploaded onto the Web site, the
response and support by female and human rights groups worldwide was
"The Net was our only way to struggle for democracy in Afghanistan against
the different forms of fundamentalists and to expose their crimes so other
people can know about them," RAWA activist Sahar Saba says from the groups'
base in Pakistan.
"It's one of the most important sources of raising finances for the work
and projects we do, so if we talk about the importance and impact of the
Internet, it is difficult to put into words - without it people would not
know about our struggle or help us."
The Internet's multimedia capabilities can persuade with graphic images
(the way television does), and arouse with sound (the way radio can). And
since anyone with a Net-connected computer can broadcast to a worldwide
audience, it's easy to see why the medium is often described as the
ultimate tool of self-empowerment for the disenfranchised.
Don't complain about the media, be the media, says Indymedia, an activist
Web site that enables anyone to publish and broadcast "alternative" news
stories. There are further examples to back their claim, too.
In 1999, when the Yugoslav Government took independent radio station
Belgrade Radio off the air, the DJs started broadcasting on the Internet.
And when Helen Steel and Dave Morris were sued by McDonald's in the famous
McLibel trial for handing out leaflets that were critical of the food chain
giant, they turned to the Net to voice their criticism.
"The Net is an important factor in levelling the traditional imbalance
between the individual and government or large corporations," The
Electrohippies say. "In cyberspace everyone can hear you scream - if you
want them to."
Maccas and the longest trial in British history
In 1990 McDonald's sued activists Helen Steel and Dave Morris for libel,
after they handed out leaflets accusing the family restaurant of
"exploiting children with advertising, promoting an unhealthy diet,
exploiting their staff and being responsible for environmental damage and
ill treatment of animals".
The court case, dubbed McLibel, was to become the longest trial in British
history, lasting two and a half years, during which time there were counter
claims, numerous appeals, spy games, worldwide media attention, books
published and documentaries produced on the matter, and anti-McDonald's
campaigns, including a Web site.
The result was a hollow victory for McDonald's, which was found to have
been libelled, but also to be falsely advertising its food as nutritious.
Still defying the might of the golden arches, the McSpotlight site contains
everything from trial transcripts and banned material, to scientific
reports and company documents. It also contains the original leaflets,
translated into many languages, that sparked the legal furore. As Jessy, a
founding member of McSpotlight, says in Graham Meikle's book, Future
Active: Media Activism and the Internet: "One of the first things we did
was upload material that McDonald's had managed to suppress during previous
legal actions - newspaper articles, leaflets and films which McDonald's
thought they'd seen the last of."
Under the new Federal Cybercrime Act 2001 it is an offence to impair
electronic communication to or from a computer, and penalties can range
from two to 10 years imprisonment. Alex Steel from the University of NSW's
law faculty says online activism will be criminal if it involves any form
of unauthorised alteration to data or impairment of electronic
communication. However, he also says there is no definition of
"impairment", and that while the Act is specifically directed at
denial-of-service attacks, the laws are too broad and too vague, leaving
room for uncertainty.
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