Aug 22 2001

Netwar! (part 3)

[Continued from part 2] No Gravatar

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“My dad drove a lorry and my mum was a cleaner,” said Paul Mobbs, spokesperson and generally acknowledged leader of a small, but influential group of Internet mavens who refer to themselves as Electrohippies. Others, however, call them agitators, firebrands, terrorists, and criminals — and those are just the names we can print here.

Radical action on the Internet generally falls into two cate­gories: (1) there are true terrorists & criminals, and (2) there are what is called the netwarriors

Mobbs still lives in his hometown of Banbury — a town halfway between London and Birmingham, perhaps most famous for the Mother Goose rhyme which begins, “Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross…” This once bucolic village has been marred by a gentrification-driven, post World War II population explosion of some 30,000 souls.

“We kept chickens and grew vegetables,” says Mobbs of his childhood. “We never ate in a service station, but instead cooked our own food on the roadside. We collected mushrooms to eat in the fields, as well as berries in the bushes to eat and make wine. We caught the odd rabbit.”

Mobbs and I lunched in London while a typically British winter mix of snow and rain drizzled from a heavy, gray sky. Mobbs is a burly man, and dressed in his classic, wool cable-knit sweater and walking shorts, he looks more like an Olympic hammer-toss medallist than a much-feared Net terrorist. As we ate, he talked of his wife and two children, 3œ and 2, and his life as a self-described poor kid who devoured books — most of which were garnered, from a ” ‘jumble sale’ — either school textbooks people didn’t return or books from clearance houses — mostly classics. “I ended up reading books with no pictures; geography, history politics, and philosophy.”

All Roads Begin With Alinsky

At age thirteen, Mobbs stumbled across Saul Alinsky’s rebel classics Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals. In Mobbs’ words, Alinsky helped him “focus on positive and tangible benefits.” Alinsky, as Mobbs understood him (and correctly, I might add, as I personally studied with Alinsky for several months in the early 1970s) had no use for any action which is merely radical for radicalism’s sake and fails to concretely affect any real social change. As Mobbs himself puts it, “action that simply feeds the need to feel concern without committing to consequential change is mental masturbation” — a short term exercise for personal gratification.

It was a natural first step then, for young Mobbs to become active in the lengthy and bitter British miners strike of 1984-85. From there it was an easy segue to an ongoing and deeply felt environmental activism. “I’ve cost polluting industries large sums of money, mostly as a result of the expenditure they’ve had to undertake to rectify the damage I’ve helped identify,” Mobbs says. “In the year 2000, I ended up with two injunctions against me because of my web-based support for two groups campaigning against genetic engineering in agriculture.”

Without Borders

Radical action on the Internet generally falls into two categories: (1) there are true terrorists & criminals (e.g. Osama Bin Laden, money launderers, child pornographers), and (2) there are what is called the netwarriors. They are the technologically empowered individuals and groups engaging in net-based activities which are specifically coordinated to bring about social change in the areas of human rights, the environment, and economic equity.

The smallest minorities are no longer limited by their geo­graphical distri­bu­tion. The Net can unite disparate groups who would not ordi­narily communicate.

In the past, concerned individuals and radicals like Alinsky were hindered by the physical, geographical and economic limitations which inherently curtailed the ability of, for example, one small group or single neighborhood to effect global change. It takes, after all, thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people for protests such as marches and boycotts to have a tangible effect. The Internet changed all that, providing a means for sharing information and resources globally thus creating the kinds of organizations Alinsky sought but was unable to realize in his lifetime.

Now, through the wonder of the World Wide Web, one small group or even a single cyber-savvy individual can bring a multinational corporation to its knees. (See Mafiaboy, as just the tip of the potential iceberg with clueless politicians and cybercops at the helm of the Titanic-Internet.)

The nature of the Net, Mobbs says, means the smallest minorities are no longer limited by their geographical distribution. The Net can unite disparate groups who would not ordinarily communicate and even if they did, they often wouldn’t have the financial resources to sustain that communication and work together. The Net also bypasses the use of intimidation or official obfuscation. People can network, pressing for change with point-to-point lobbying across many fronts.

Unlike many netwarriors, however, Mobbs does not see the Internet as a quantum leap into a new social structure, but rather as a microcosm of the existing one. “The Internet is within society,” he says. “As a conceptual entity, it must be a filtered reflection of the power structures, problems, and progressive trends that exist within society as a whole.”

Mobbs warms to this. “I know some hackers think this statement is rather heretical. But anyone who believes the Internet is something separate and sacrosanct from mainstream society, has, in my opinion, got some serious work to do on their social skills. The Internet has, and always will be, subject to the flaws and fluctuations of the real world. Net purists and corporate Net-heads should not then disparage those who wish to use the Internet as a means to bring progressive change to society.”

You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet

Alinsky used and, some thought, abused the picket line. Mobbs faces the same accusation when he and others like him throw up electronic picket lines known as Denial of Service attacks.

We can all begin to seriously address the question of Whose Web is it Anyway?

When first exploring what the hardware and software would allow them to do, the Electrohippies came up with a computer program called Floodnet — a tool allowing individuals to flood a website with demands to see it.

Imagine a neighborhood coffee shop which averages 500 customers a day. Now imagine if 5,000,000 customers all decide they want their double-latte at exactly the same time. That’s basically how Floodnet works. It is a simple equation, really: too much demand equals a website crash. A website crash equals the digital equivalent of an uncrossable picket line, and that makes for some very, very unhappy bigwigs indeed.

(Surprisingly, some thought to be among the most “radical” of “hackers” despise the Floodnet tool. In another age and in another context, this is exactly how the United Auto Workers and the Teamsters got living wages for their workers. The only difference being that some UAW and Teamsters had to die on the picket lines or the sit-ins before progress could be made.)

When they first conceived their campaign to crash the World Trade Organizations web site, the Electrohippies expected around 40,000-50,000 requests for Floodnet. Instead, they received a half-million requests in just over four days. The program has since been provided free of charge for use against other targets — and more tools are on the way. Many a large corporate behemoth and governmental leviathans, it seems, may well be unpleasantly surprised in the months and years to come by the innovation and persistence of Mobbs and people like him.

For their part, large organizations essentially have two options for dealing with Electrohippie-type insurgency. Option One — they can fight an unwinnable war, a techno-Vietnam; enacting totalitarian legislation and arresting protesters, thus seriously compromising freedom of expression and the right to redress grievances which we all hold dear. The Council of Europe’s CyberCrime Treaty is a perfect example. We have the situation of Bulgaria and Germany, for example, defining what speech should be or not be permitted!

Option Two is more complicated, but — thankfully — ultimately far more constructive. Namely, we can all begin to seriously address the question of Whose Web is it Anyway? We can find a place for dissent, even accommodate dissent, and in so doing create corporations and government entities far more responsive to the people they are supposed to be serving in the first place. Perhaps we might start by revising an old Mother Goose rhyme:

Ride a cock horse
To Banbury Cross

And you’ll find an Electrohippie
Who thinks people should be boss