Intro for Net. activism Forum

Ten years ago, there were few online activists and they believed that "cyberspace" was all theirs, a territory from which to emerge anywhere, outflanking the lumbering second-wave dinosaurs responsible for the Cold War and its successor, the McWorld. In the future that actually unfolded, the dinosaurs learned to boot up computers, connect to the Internet and post Web pages, or pay someone to do all this for them. What was a poor online activist to do? Even the son of Slobodan Milosevic has a Web site, to promote his Belgrade dance club.

Online activists have lately been busy. The last 12 months saw a flurry of politically motivated online actions. Electronic Disturbance Theater, a New York group, staged "virtual sit-ins" at Web sites maintained by the Mexican government and the state of Pennsylvania. (The former oppresses sympathizers of the Zapatistas and the latter recently renewed its attempts to execute prison journalist and alleged cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal.) Someone else hacked the Great Firewall of China, hijacking a Web page and compromising proxy servers used to shield the Chinese people from pornography and sedition. Yet another group occupied a Shell office in London and posted a protest Web site from inside the building using a phone and a palmtop computer. And broadening the category of electronic activism allows inclusion of the L0phT and Peacefire, who make software that respectively opens humiliating holes in Microsoft server software and circumvents censorware like Cyber Patrol.

But the underdogs took a few kicks as well. Hackers shut down Web sites supporting Croatia, East Timor, and the Basque separatists. Scientologists are suspected of sabotaging the usenet newsgroup alt.religion.scientology, a forum used by critics of the Church. More ominously, officials of the U.S. military and intelligence agencies, styling themselves "infowarriors," want to revive the Manichean (and lucrative) Cold War on the Internet.

This is the milieu of today's net.activist.

Net.activists must decide what tactics best fit a medium whose users are quickly becoming identical to the general public and which seems to be turning computers into TV sets. Is there a place for blunt denial-of-service attacks, hijacking of official Web pages, or more serious havoc? It's easy to snarl Internet traffic; it happens often enough by accident. Hacktivism risks yielding only media titillation or provoking an offical crackdown or both. Are some attack modes more profitable than others? Does hacktivism include providing technical support to dissident voices, as PressNow! did for Belgrade's Radio B92 when the Milosevic government forced it off the air in 1996?

And what does it mean to be on the receiving end of a campaign that spills off the Net and into an activist's personal life? Critics of McDonald's and Scientology have been harried by non-wired lawyers, while Radio B92's offline contingent has to deal with Milosevic's goons. Hit-and-run actions are very different from ongoing battles and the former is apt to turn into the latter.

The net.activism forum at Next 5 Minutes is a way for activists to share their experiences in some of the aforementioned arenas and learn new tricks. For example, the individuals who operate as Luther Blissett could use an anonymizer to cover their electronic tracks (if they don't already). Or hacktivists may learn not to do serious damage to the Internet in the course of an action. This forum is not an attempt to define a program for activists. It aims to avoid reinvention of the wheel, a problem that reoccurs as activists enter and leave the scene. If hacktivists learn from each other, they can more efficiently go about regaining the Internet that belongs to them, not to the dinosaurs.