Netwars: Activists Power the Internet

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By Jason Wehling

Since the so-called Republican victory in the last U.S. election, the political Left has been reeling. In many places, including the major media, we have been told that this victory spells a new revolution, a revolution for the Right. Regardless of the truth, many have felt their activist work to be largely ineffectual. Interestingly, a Rand corporation researcher, David Ronfeldt, argues that contrary to the impotence felt by many social activists, they have become an important force fueled by the information revolution. Through computer and communication networks, especially the Internet, grassroots campaigns have flourished, and, most importantly, government elites have noticed.

Ronfeldt specializes in issues of national security, especially Latin America and the impact of new informational technologies. Ronfeldt and another colleague coined the term "netwar" a few years ago in a Rand document entitled "Cyberwar is Coming!" Netwars are actions by autonomous groups -- especially advocacy groups and social movements -- that use informational networks to coordinate action to influence, change, or fight government policy.

Ronfeldt's work initiated a flurry of discussion on the Internet in mid-March when Pacific News Service corespondent Joel Simon wrote an article about Ronfeldts opinions on the influence of netwars on the political situation in Mexico. According to Simon, Ronfeldt holds that the work of social activists on the Internet has had a large influence -- helping to coordinate the large demonstrations in Mexico City in support of the Zapatistas and the proliferation of EZLN communiqus across the world via computer networks. These actions, Ronfeldt argues, have allowed a network of groups that oppose the PRI to muster an international response, often within hours of actions by Zedillos government.

Ronfeldt's position has many implications. First, Ronfeldt is not an independent researcher. He is an employee of the notorious Rand corporation. Rand is, and has been since its creation in 1948, a private appendage of the military industrial complex. Paul Dickson, author of the book Think Tanks, described Rand as the "first military think tank. undoubtedly the most powerful research organization associated with the American military." The famous Pentagon Papers, leaked to the press in June 1971 and detailing the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, was produced by Rand.

Ronfeldt has authored many research papers for Rand, but his ties to the military don't end there. He has also written papers directly for the U.S. military on military communication and, more interestingly, for the Central Intelligence Agency on leadership analysis.

Ronfeldt argues that "the information revolution. disrupts and erodes the hierarchies around which institutions are normally designed. It diffuses and redistributes power, often to the benefit of what may be considered weaker, smaller actors." Continuing, "multi-organizational networks consist of (often small) organizations or parts of institutions that have linked together to act jointly. making it possible for diverse, dispersed actors to communicate, consult, coordinate, and operate together across greater distances, and on the basis of more and better information than ever."

Ronfeldt emphasizes that "some of the heaviest users of the new communications networks and technologies are progressive, center-left, and social activists. [which work on] human rights, peace, environmental, consumer, labor, immigration, racial and gender-based issues."

All governments, especially the U.S. government, have been extremely antagonistic to this idea of effective use of information, especially by the Left. Samuel Huntington, Harvard political science professor and author of the U.S. section of the Trilateral Commission's book-length study, The Crisis of Democracy, argued in 1975 that "some of the problems of governance in the United States today stem from an excess of democracy. Needed, instead, is a greater degree of moderation of democracy."

To fight this, Ronfeldt maintains that: "institutions can be defeated by networks, and it may take networks to counter networks." He argues that if the U.S. government and/or military is to fight this ideological war properly -- and he specifically mentions ideology -- it must scrap hierarchical organization for a more autonomous and decentralized system: a network. In this way, he states, "we expect that. netwar may be uniquely suited to fighting non-state actors."

Ronfeldt is basically arguing that the efforts of activists on computers not only have been very effective, but more importantly, that the only way to counter this work is to follow the lead of social activists. Ronfeldt emphasized, in a personal correspondence that the "information revolution is also strengthening civil-society actors in many positive ways, and, moreover, that netwar is not necessarily a bad thing that necessarily is a threat to U.S. or other interests. It depends." At the same time, the Left should understand the important implications of Ronfeldts work: government elites are not only watching these actions (big surprise), but are also attempting to work against them.

The Attack Has Already Begun

Because of the very nature of the Internet and communication networks, the issues are inherently international and transcend traditional national boundaries. For these reasons it is important to watch for attacks on these networks wherever they occur -- and they have. Since the beginning of this year, a number of computer networks, so far confined to Europe, have been attacked or completely shut down.

In Italy on February 28, members of the Carabinieri Anti-Crime Special Operations Group raided the homes of a number of activists, many in the anarchist movement. They confiscated journals, magazines, pamphlets, diaries, and videotapes. They also took their personal computers, one of which hosted "BITS Against the Empire," a node of Cybernet and Fidonet networks. The warrant ridiculously charged them for "association with intent to subvert the democratic order," carrying a penalty of 7-15 years imprisonment, if convicted.

In the United Kingdom, a number of computer networks have recently been attacked. Police shut down the Terminal Boredom Bulletin Board System (BBS) in Scotland after the arrest of a hacker affiliated with the BBS. Spunk Press in the UK, the largest anarchist archive of published material cataloged on computer networks, has faced a media barrage falsely accusing them of working with known terrorists like the Red Army Faction of Germany, of providing recipes for making bombs, and of coordinating the "disruption of schools, looting of shops and attacks on multinational firms." Articles by the computer trade magazine, Computing, and even the Sunday London Times, entitled "Anarchism Runs Riot on the Superhighway" and "Anarchists Use Computer Highway For Subversion" respectively, nearly lost the lead organizer of Spunk Press his job after the firm he works for received bad publicity. According to the book Turning up the Heat: MI5 after that cold war by Lara O'Hara, one of the journalists who wrote the Sunday Times article has contacts with MI5, the British equivalent of the FBI.

It is no coincidence that these attacks started with anarchists and libertarian-socialists. They are currently the most organized political groups on the Internet. Even Simon Hill, editor of Computing magazine, admits that "we have been amazed at the level of organization of these. groups who have appeared on the Internet in a short amount of time."

These attacks may not be confined to anarchists for long. Here in the U.S., a number of bills are before Congress that would affect a large number of political views. One is S314. This bill, introduced by Senators Exon (D-NE) and Gorton (R-WA), would prohibit not only individual speech that is "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent," but would prohibit any provider of telecommunications service (such as an Internet provider) from carrying such traffic, under threat of stiff penalties: $100,000 or two years in prison. According to the Center for Democracy and Technology, "the bill would compel service providers to choose between severely restricting the activities of their subscribers or completely shutting down their Email, Internet access and conferencing services under the threat of criminal liability."

The government is not the only institution to notice the power of the Internet in the hands of activists. The Washington Post ("Mexican Rebels Using a High-Tech Weapon; Internet Helps Rally Support," by Tod Robberson), Newsweek "When Words are the Best Weapon: How the Rebels Use the Internet and Satellite TV," by Russell Watson) and CNN (February 26) have done stories about the importance of the Internet and network communication organization with respect to the Zapatistas.

Netwars Are Effective

A good example of the power of Internet is the events concerning Mexico and the Zapatistas. When Alexander Cockburn wrote an article exposing a Chase Manhattan Bank memo about Chiapas and the Zapatistas in Counterpunch, only a small number of people read it. The memo, written by Riordan Roett, was very important because it argued that "the [Mexican] government will need to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and of security policy." In other words, if the Mexican government wants investment from Chase, it will have to crush the Zapatistas. When this information was uploaded to the Internet (via a large number of List-servers and the USENET), it quickly reached a very large number of people who, in turn, coordinated a protest against the U.S. and Mexican governments and especially Chase Manhattan. Chase was eventually forced to distance itself from the Roett memo.

Currently, there are a myriad of activist campaigns on the Internet. From local issues like the anti-Proposition 187 movement in California to a progressive college network campaign against the Contract [on] America, the network system of activism is not only working well, as Ronfeldt admits, but is growing rapidly in numbers of people involved and in political and social effectiveness.

According to Ronfeldt's thesis, extreme measures such as S314 are not the answer. Actually destroying the Internet is also not likely, for a number of reasons. Mostly, mainstream political opposition would be too great. The Internet and netwars are here to stay, maintains Ronfeldt. The trick is to be better at it than the opposition. That means creating government networks more effective than the networks of social activists. Of course, this has inherent problems of its own. How will U.S. military leaders react when they hear that the military must "erode" its system of hierarchy to evolve into decentralized, autonomous networks of smaller parts?

Much more likely, at least for the time being, is the regulation of information. Currently, the question of how laws should be applied to the Internet and other computer networks is vague and undefined. It could fall into one of three regulated areas. First, is print media, largely protected by the First amendment. Second, is common carriers, such as the telephone and the U.S. postal system,governed by principles of "universal service" and "fair access." Lastly, is broadcasting, which is highly regulated, primarily by the FCC.

One scenario is that the Internet would be subjected to FCC regulation. Obviously for social activists, a much better scenario is that the Internet, and other computer networks, would be placed in the category of "common carriers," where universal access is assured. This placement has yet to be resolved, but the battle lines are already drawn. Under the guise of saving children from pedophiles, a current media campaign pushes for regulation against pornography and other "obscenity." Last year, Carnegie-Mellon University attempted to restrict campus users from access to x-rated photographs on the Internet.

Another scenario is control by private industry. Many people use the "highway" or "superhighway" analogy when describing the Internet. But a new analogy has emerged: the railroad or super-railroad -- the highway is public, the railroad is private. One proposal from ANS, a joint venture between IBM and MCI, is to privatize the Internet "backbone," thus creating "toll-roads." They lay the new cables, they own them, users will have to "pay as they go." Currently, the Internet works on cooperation. As information travels from here to there, all the computers in between cooperate by allowing the information to pass through to its destination. With a pay as you go system, the cost of communication would rise, effectively limiting social activists' (and many other groups') participation in these netwars.

This possible long-term solution parallels the fate of the newspaper. Faced with the same problem, a cheap and accessible means for expressing ideas available to the general population, the initial response was to enforce laws limiting its use (e.g. censorship laws). However, coercion was ineffective as a means of social control and was soon abandoned.

As capital costs increased, laws were revoked as market forces ensured that only those with access to vast amounts of money could start even a weekly newspaper. The need for advertising to run a paper ensured big business control over its content. We could see mainstream journals having free access to web sites on the Internet (funded entirely by advertising) while dissident publications (who do not want advertising or the control of editorial decisions this implies) will have to charge in order for their web sites to exist and pay their way.

With a pay as you go backbone, the need for laws to control the information super-highway would be limited.

It is clear that Rand, and possibly other wings of the establishment are studying and analyzing activists' potential power. We should study their behavior and actions. As Ronfeldt states, the potential is there for us to be more effective. Information is getting out. But to improve on the work that is already being done, we should attempt to provide more in-depth analysis -- not just what we are doing and what the establishment is doing. In this way, activist networks will have the advantage of up-to-date information of events, as well as a good background on what each event means.

Jason Wehling is a freelance writer from Portland, Oregon.


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