Today's Tech Dependent Activists
by Amit Asaravala
October 28, 2003
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In addition to picket signs and megaphones, activists protesting globalization policies at next month's meeting of the World Trade Organization in Cancún will be armed with a number of new, high-tech weapons for getting their message across.
These include using peer-to-peer networks to distribute video to television stations and setting up wireless access points so that activists can post updates to their weblogs. The aim is to help demonstrators make a bigger impact, even with fewer people, say protest organizers.
"Technology gives us the ability to shift the power in the protest to the dissidents," said Rabble, an activist with the Independent Media Center who requested that his real name not be used. "It's an incredible tactical advance from the days when the police were the only ones with a reliable communications network during protests."
During the WTO meeting, which will take place from Sept. 10 to 14, Rabble and others plan to use a peer-to-peer video-sharing service called v2v to transmit broadcast-quality video of the protests to television stations and other activists.
They also will set up wireless networks at the protest welcome center in the nearby town of Ciudad Cancún, and will stream audio recordings of interviews and speeches over the Internet for rebroadcast on participating radio stations.
The technologies are part of a growing collection of modern protest tactics, many of which originated during the highly publicized anti-WTO demonstrations that took place in Seattle in November 1999.
"There are always technological developments in activist practices," said activist Mike Bonanno. "Since 1999, the importance of e-mail lists and Web publishing to help organize people on the ground and disseminate information has not diminished."
Bonanno is a member of the Yes Men, a group that builds parody websites as a way to protest the policies of various organizations.
During the Seattle protests in 1999, the Yes Men launched GATT.org to protest the WTO. He says the group will continue updating the site during the Cancún meeting as a way to point out what they believe are flaws in the WTO's policies.
"We plan to use the GATT.org website to continue representing the positions of the WTO more honestly than they care to represent themselves," said Bonanno. "This has always been a goal of ours: to explain how WTO policies hurt the poor and the environment, but doing it with a healthy dose of satire."
Representatives of the WTO did not respond to requests for comment.
Surprisingly, one high-tech protest tactic that is likely to be absent from this year's demonstration is the use of distributed denial-of-service attacks to shut down the WTO website.
The electrohippies, a British group that called for such attacks during the 1999 meeting, have since disbanded. And many protest organizers today say they would not support such an attack if another group made a similar call.
"Taking down the website might be fun and headline-grabbing, but I personally don't think it's a good tactic," said Rabble. "The WTO does not function because its website stays up; it functions because corporations and governments give it tremendous power."
Another tactic that is not likely to make an appearance is the use of mailing lists to create "flash mobs," a way of mobilizing large groups of people by sending out a single message to awaiting recipients.
"The 'flash mob' concept generally works best when enough people are around to receive e-mail and react quickly," said Bonanno. "It gets more difficult if such communications technologies are not available to people."
Just 10 percent of Mexico's population regularly goes online, according to the country's Internet association, AMIPCI. The percentage is expected to be lower on the Yucatán peninsula, where Cancún is located, because of poverty in the jungle-covered region.
Despite this, organizers say they are confident that the available technologies will allow them to mobilize participants more effectively than ever before.
"Even with the distance and expense associated with getting to and protesting in Cancún, we're expecting between 10,000 and 20,000 people to participate," said Starhawk, an organizer with the RANT Collective.
"The Internet has allowed us to have a different kind of global conversation," she said. "Organizing for Cancún wouldn't be as effective without it."