Jul 25 2001

Netwar! (part 2)

[Continued from part 1] No Gravatar

Internet protestors are typically portrayed as malevolent figures, viral threats who endanger the peaceful, economically viable communications by which business and government, using computers and the Internet, go about conducting their affairs. These protestors are grouped together under the catch-all label of hackers. In reality, Internet protest defies easy categorization or stereotyping, ranging from activism to “hacktivism” to “netwarriors.”

Social “netwarriors” use traditional grassroots organizing techniques. Their causes and the points they make may indeed have validity, no matter what cyber-means they choose to bring those causes to the public’s attention.

The term “netwar” was originated by Rand Corporation analyst David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. In their slim book, “The Zapatista Social Netwar in Mexico,” Ronfeldt and Arquilla (along with Graham E. Fuller and Melissa Fuller) identified three distinct forces on the Internet battlefield.

The first force they see as “legitimately terrorist” in nature. Terrorist netwar might, for example, involve the disruption of communications and power grids — cyberwar on a massive scale, fought with bytes, not bombs. The second force is “criminal” netwar — drug trafficking, child pornography, and money laundering.

But Ronfeldt, Arquilla and the Fullers recognize a third netwar force — one beyond terrorism and criminality — a “social netwar” involving issues such as human rights, environmental problems, and economic equity. Social netwarriors use traditional grassroots organizing techniques, and Ronfeldt & Co. believe they deserve serious consideration, as their causes — for the points they make, no matter what cybermeans they choose to bring those causes to public attention, may indeed have some validity.

In the 50s, 60s, and 70s, grassroots organizations were organized primarily along geographic boundaries: within a neighborhood or city, or within various ethnic or religious communities that could easily communicate with each other. Issues of common concern, interests, and needs were identified. “People power” was marshaled to seek redress, be it the closing of a factory, racial oppression, or union building.

Today, with the Internet, people with similar concerns and interests can form virtual communities (Howard Rheingold’s term) located not in one, but in a thousand different geographic areas.

Social netwarriors may wage social netwar against governments who silence dissent. Or they may wage it against businesses who pollute the environment or who create genetically modified foods and plants without the input or approval of the citizenry. As such, social netwarriors represent an important counterbalance to the excesses of the powerful.


With its symbolic steer’s skull logo, the cult of the Dead cow (cDc) is perhaps (they will hate this) the grandfather of hacktivism. cDc members have names federal agencies take seriously, such as Swamp Ratte, The Deth Vegetable, and OXblood Ruffin, the group’s foreign minister. As I saw last summer at the hackers convention called DEF┬áCON in Las Vegas, the current 25-member cDc can capture and hold the attention & admiration of 4,000 young wannabee hackers for hours, excoriating script kiddy website defacements and leveling biting criticisms at various juvenile electronic exploits.

Hacktivists sometimes face a difficult question. What do you do when outrage isn’t enough? They become social netwarriors when they take protest beyond a civilized engagement with the status quo.

One hacktivist aspect of the cDc’s activities was their development of “Back Orifice” — a program which, thanks to built-in flaws in Microsoft Windows 95 & 98, permitted one computer to control another PC remotely, and to use it for any purpose: breaking into another computer, changing or deleting files, and so forth. While there was outrage at publishing such an exploit, and great condemnation of the cDc for releasing it, there was also wonderment on the part of many that Microsoft could design and sell such a flawed product.

That’s what the cDc wanted — outrage against Microsoft. But it apparently fell on deaf ears, despite the efforts of the federal anti-trust division and the cDc, that Microsoft is doing very well, thank you.

So the question for a group of hacktivists like the cDc then becomes — what do you do when outrage isn’t enough?

Hacktivists become social netwarriors when they mine their own internal truths and are willing to take protest beyond a civilized engagement with the status quo. Often, hacktivist groups engage in wider protests that can and do cross the bounds of legality, especially as they govern conduct on the Internet. The enemy is the status quo, the power elite, as represented, for example, by the protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, or the Catholic Church-supported Zapatista uprising in Chiapas against a repressive government.

In an interview last summer, an unsmiling OXblood Ruffin told me that he and the cDc take Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights very, very seriously. Article 19 reads in its entirety:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and statement; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

To that end, OXblood Ruffin and others are developing extraordinarily complicated software that permits citizens of a totalitarian state — the Peoples Republic of China, for example — to send and receive text information while sidestepping or making an end run around censors, as OXblood put it. This would be done, he said, by muddying the footprint, anonymizing visits to Web sites so that no one will know where on the ‘Net you’ve gone or what you’ve seen. A classic progression from hacktivism to social netwar if ever there was one.

While the cDc is careful to disassociate itself from those whose Internet activities break the law, there are tens, hundreds, perhaps thousands of social netwarriors who seek to draw attention to violations of human, environmental, and economic rights by whatever means necessary. Many would hold that social netwarriors are nothing more than malevolent viruses. Others believe they are a penicillin for world-wide social, political, and economic ills.

You make the call.


[Continued in part 3]