Jul 04 2001

Netwar!

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The world is currently engulfed by a new McCarthyist frenzy; a technological witchhunt which labels, condemns and punishes Internet activists in one fell swoop, and one which threatens the precious freedoms of every single human being on this planet.

This cybersteria is the pre­tense for an utterly bar­barous gutting of the Fourth Amend­ment and a war on personal liberties.

In the bad, old days of the “Red Menace,” the straw man specter of imminent Communist insurgency was used as justification for a horrific array of abuses: obsessive file gathering, wiretapping, burglary — even murder. Similarly, the news is these days rife with reports of vicious viruses, horrific national security breeches and billions of dollars lost to sinister hackers.

This cybersteria is an elaborate ruse for an utterly barbarous gutting of the Fourth Amendment. A war on personal liberties is being waged by an unholy trinity of governments, multi-national corporations, and an ever-pliant, “watchdog” media whose sensationalist scare tactics merely grease the slope on our tumble towards totalitarianism.

Consider a recent 60 Minutes broadcast. CBS correspondent Wyatt Andrew described the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) as “the most radical eco-terrorist group in America.” Terrorist!? True, the ELF vigorously protests the destruction of Old Growth forests, and have even burned a few uninhabited, half-built million-dollar homes in Vail, Colorado to protest the environmental degradation wrought by the region’s unchecked growth. So is the ELF radical? Sure. Extreme? Absolutely.

But are they really terrorists?

Hamas blows up buses in Israel. Aum Shinrikyo murdered 12 and injured thousands by releasing Sarin gas in the Tokyo subways. Timothy McVeigh left 168 dead in Oklahoma City. These are terrorists. Is the ELF in the same class? Put bluntly, no. Shouldn’t a group at least have to kill somebody before being labeled a terrorist organization? But the ELF are the only ones being branded.

The battle against crime on the Internet is being waged with a broadsword rather than a scalpel. These days, everyone from teens who “wall scrawl” their high school website, to college kids who download free music, to organizations protesting the policies of the WTO are being persecuted and prosecuted as criminals.

The battle against crime on the Inter­net is being waged with a broad­sword rather than a scalpel.

If, for example, Greenfield High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin can expel senior Justin Boucher merely for writing an essay entitled “So You Want to be a Hacker” for an underground student newspaper (which they can and did), it begs some serious questions. Just what is free speech? Who is more dangerous, the kid who writes the essay or the people who kick him out of school for writing it? And who is next on the list of “subversives”?

Clearly, we are in desperate need of a calm, composed, decidedly un-60 Minutes-like examination of the world of the Internet protest. We need to see what’s going down and just who is threatening whom.

It’s all about the ‘net ‘hood

A city is not an organism, but an ecosystem; a extremely complex and interdependent web of restaurants, homes, taverns, coffee shops, local legends and tall tales. In short, it is a collection of neighborhoods. Ultimately, it is these neighborhoods on which we tend to base our sense of community and therefore it is ultimately the neighborhood which functions as the fundamental currency of social discourse.

By the same token, the Internet must be understood not as a singular entity, but rather as an aggregate of digital neighborhoods; an almost infinite conglomeration of computerized communities constructed not of concrete, glass, and steel, but of ideas about how and why we live.

In the past, community activists were hindered by the physical, geographical, and economic limitations which curtailed the ability of one small group or single neighborhood to have sway over a city, to say nothing of a state, national, or global impact. After all, it takes thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people for marches and boycotts to have any tangible effect. Getting, say, a half-million people together through snail mail and telephone can be a pretty difficult task.

The Internet changes all that, providing a means for sharing information and resources globally — and virtually instantaneously.

Shouldn’t a group at least have to kill some­body before being labeled a cyber-terrorist?

Now, through the wonder of the World Wide Web, a small group or even a single cyber-savvy individual can build a community comprised of people from all over the planet. This provides extraordinary opportunities for every citizen on earth to participate in decision making processes previously reserved for the power elite alone.

The potential of net-based communities as conduits for igniting even radical social change was foreseen by many thinkers, but among the earliest was self-proclaimed radical Saul Alinsky. Hiss “Reveille for Radicals” was published around the time UNIVAC was designed, and Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” came out in 1971, roughly concurrent with the writing of the first e-mail program.

However, only in the last decade or so has the technology necessary to implement Alinsky’s ideas reached the hands of those willing to wield it in the revolutionary way he envisioned. These new radicals don’t “take it to the streets” in protest. They don’t need to. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but these people know the CPU is more powerful than both. Today, small groups — and even highly motivated individuals — can wreak international havoc with just a few strokes of a keyboard.

Generally, though, the motivations of and methods employed by cyber-activists are not malicious, and they certainly do not conform to the mostly malevolent portraits painted by hysterical media, manipulative governments, and greedy corporate behemoths. Most cyber-activists are simply using one of Alinsky’s basic precepts in order to instigate awareness and initiate change: Namely, that the best way to incite social transformation is to rub raw the wounds of discontent through community-based activism.

How? Read on.

Alinsky’s cyber-children

The Million Mom March, using a Website and e-mail, mobilized several hundred thousand demonstrators on Mothers Day 2000 to promote more effective gun control. For years, The Rainforest Action Network has been pressuring businesses with threats of boycotts in an effort to stop destruction of environmental treasures. In 1997 the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines — a coalition of more than 1,400 activist groups — won the Nobel Peace Prize for compelling over one hundred nations into signing a comprehensive anti-personnel mine treaty.

Generally, the moti­va­tions of and methods employed by cyber-activists are not malicious, and they cer­tainly do not con­form to the mostly malevo­lent portraits painted by hys­terical media.

How do all these groups communicate? With e-mail of course, and an ongoing Web presence for all to see.

These organizations are wonderful examples of “Alinskyism” in action; digital democracy at its finest — which is why these groups (and many more like them) are such a monumental pain to folks wanting to preserve the status quo. For instance, computer activism of this sort is extremely threatening to, say, corporate polluters. It is also a safe bet that regimes in places like in Singapore, China, and Iran aren’t in love with these groups. However, as we will soon see, Internet-based activism doesn’t stop with websites and e-mail. It gets much bigger and badder than that.

Organizations like the ones listed above are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Soon we will meet someone who moved beyond advocacy and activism into what some have called the undemocratic realm of “hacktivism.” Exploring the methods and motivations of this decidedly more energetic form of cyberprotest — which include tactics like e-mail bombing and Denial of Service attacks — we will meet a man who believes letter-writing, boycott threats, and public shaming aren’t enough. Paul Mobbs, of the radical group “electrohippies,” is a revolutionary of the digital age.

Mobbs is unabashed, unapologetic, and well-armed. He is also very, very pissed. Stay tuned.

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[Continued in part 2]