Digital activism, the WTO and international trade rules
5 September 2003
By Glen Tarman
Coordinator, Trade Justice Movement
Trade was once the domain of economists, lawyers, civil servants, academics and policy 'wonks' from NGOs and campaign groups. It was technical, obscure, unexciting, boring even. As a global issue, trade has now moved to centre stage. As such it provides a filter into digital activism. Campaigners have used almost every technique the Internet offers to raise awareness of the injustices that the present global trade regime perpetuates and to organize action to resist corporate globalization that places profit before people.
The watershed Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in late 1999 and the protests in that city and all around the world provide a starting point for a virtual tour of Internet activism around trade. Online networking was critical in the mobilization for that event. Of course, so was almost every other tool in the activist toolkit. We will never be able to disaggregate the 'net effect' from all the other factors and contexts that led to trade coming onto the global stage as visibly and as dramatically as it did. But what we can do is map out some of the ways the Internet helped to make trade and the WTO one of the flashpoints on the contested space of globalization.
As soon as Seattle was decided as the host city, announcement emails started circulating. The bases were already loaded. So many different groups had identified the WTO as their ?common enemy?. Email provides a very effective way to organize, mobilize and publicize and what are all fairly standard techniques now were used then. Websites appeared to inform and coordinate. Groups like The Ruckus Society provided training manuals on direct action and details of training camps on non-violent civil disobedience. Listservs were created for updates and information sharing.
Some of the activity was mundane, practical stuff like maps on how to get to Seattle, meeting points ? yet all vital for a successful protest. It has been estimated that over 1000 activists from outside the city found a place to crash with strangers through an online accommodation exchange set up by Seattle residents. In many ways, Seattle saw the Internet simply being used to enhance previous pre-Internet techniques.
Breaking through the information blockade
One of the legacies of Seattle is IndyMedia. Not many activists believed the major news organizations would cover the WTO protests adequately or even at all. A group of Seattle media activists including Deep Dish TV, Free Speech TV, Paper Tiger TV and Protest.net decided to be proactive and joined forces as the Seattle Independent Media Center with the aim to provide grassroots coverage. Months before the WTO meeting, with $30,000 in donations and borrowed kit, they transformed a downtown storefront into a high-tech newsroom and then launched their own Website.
This attempt to end the run around traditional media used a democratic open-publishing system to report the protesters? viewpoints, document police violence and send reports out on the Web. Indymedia organizers believed that corporate-owned major news organizations had created a "blockade" misrepresenting or failing to report the varied viewpoints of those who protest corporate globalization and the WTO (see www.fair.org/issues-news/trade.html for some insightful pieces on this subject).
Indymedia, the 'multimedia peoples' newsroom', now publishes in over 20 language and over 35 countries and its traffic has been estimated at nearly 50 million page views a month. Using information technologies in a way unforeseen by the corporate world, the rapidly growing number of Independent Media Centers continues to provide an outlet for disaffected and disenfranchised groups by reporting alternative versions of the news than the mainstream press. The Indymedia Cancun site is the latest site set up to follow the trade agenda (for the 5th WTO Ministerial in Mexico).
The rogue art of spoofing
In the run up to the WTO Seattle Ministerial, ®TMark published Gatt.org, a Website ?questioning the value of untrammeled free trade and financial globalization?. (The Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade was the predecessor to the World Trade Organization, and many Internet users seeking the WTO came to Gatt.org instead.).
Within days, the WTO issued a press release condemning Gatt.org. "It?s ironic that while the WTO is accused of lacking transparency, some critics who put out misleading or false information are camouflaging their identities," Mike Moore, then WTO director general, was quoted in the release. ®TMark responded with its own press release that generated a fair quantity of coverage.
The WTO again drew attention to Gatt.org, by posting a ?warning? notice on its front page. The WTO's new notice and press release formed part of the WTO's publicity gaffs (and the fact their Website devoted more comment to Gatt.org than to the physical protests themselves or to the protesters' concerns) ensuring greater Web traffic to Gatt.org.
?We use this mirroring technique as a means for revealing something, contradictions, hypocrisies,? said Frank Guerrero of ®TMark. ?Hopefully in the moments of confusion somebody might experience we can open up a space for thinking a different way about these organizations.? (for more on how events unfolded see www.rtmark.com/gatt.html).
In March 2000, the Yes Men were given control of GATT.org.
The Yes Men have represented the World Trade Organization in a variety of official contexts from legal, finance and business conferences to prime time television. Each time, they had been invited by people who mistook the parody Website for the official WTO site.
Andrew Bichlbaum calls this practice ?Bacterial Kibitzing with the WTO?, (a low-rent version of "viral marketing"). The term ?kibitzer? (and thus the verb to kibbitz) comes from the chess cafes of central Europe at the start of the century. A kibbitzer did not play chess, but watched other people playing, and possibly made comments on their play. Kibbitzing (looking over the shoulders of the experts) is instructive as well as enjoyable.
The free, open-source software Reamweaver was first released when the World Trade Organization tried to shut down Gatt.org in November 2001. "The WTO tried to capitalize on the post-9/11 climate by attacking any kind of dissent," said Cue P. Doll, one of the Reamweaver coders. "By automating the parody process, this software scales Web dissent from a small group to a global network, ensuring the WTO's kind of tactics will never work."
The Yes Men undermine the WTO by taking their tenets of trade liberalization to absurd extremes. "We're hacking into the political system," Bichlbaum has said. "Hacking doesn't have to be all technology."
During the Seattle WTO meeting, the UK-based Electrohippies Collective initiated their action. The aim 'to provide a mechanism for ordinary people, who cannot get to Seattle, to register a protest that may have the impact equivalent to actually being there in person - that is a virtual sit-in'. Part of the plan was to also 'restrict the PR staff at the WTO from spreading their global corporate agenda'.
The Electrohippies' method was a client-side distributed Denial-of-Service action. It required the involvement of thousands of individual computer users to be technically effective. Not enough people taking part simultaneously, and it wouldn't work. Service on the WTO's servers was interrupted and slowed which demonstrated that there was 'significant support' for the action. The Electrohippies estimated '450,000 people (over 5 days) across the globe to express their dissatisfaction with the WTO and without the risk of being gassed by Seattle's 'robocops? ''. The group saw a "democratic guarantee" inherent in the technique.
The action did gain a fair amount of media coverage. As such it helped to raise awareness of the WTO and questions being raised about its 'past conduct and the future course of the organization'. The Electrohippies' site also linked to other information resources, not all anti-WTO, to help Web users explore the issues and arguments.
The action was developed from The Zapatista Tactical FloodNet set up to target various Mexican government Websites by the US-based Electronic Disturbance Theatre (EDT). EDT was four activists framing their activities within performance art. One of them, Ricardo Domingo, has spoken of their success, not by any measure of their technical effect on the targeted sites, but because they raised awareness of the Zapatistas' struggle.
The Electrohippies WTO action resulted in flak from hactivism pioneers, the Cult of the Dead Cow, on the grounds of violating free speech. Cult of the Dead Cow member "Oxblood Ruffin" published a critique of such attacks and strongly disagrees with the methodology. "No rationale, even in the service of the highest ideals, makes them anything other than what they are -- illegal, unethical, and uncivil," he wrote. "One does not make a better point in a public forum by shouting down one's opponent." (The Electrohippies have issued a response to the criticism of 'distributed Denial of Service' protest actions online.)
Part II: Into the light - Countering secrecy
Part III: Online action exchange