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Newest tool for social protest: the Internet

Crashing Web sites, known as 'hactivism,' gains popularity, angers

When the industrial powers and Russia start their annual summit in Cologne, Germany, today, protesters will ride bikes in London, perform street theater in Chile, and manipulate a giant puppet in San Francisco.

Pretty much the usual stuff when the G-8 gathers. But on the fringes of this worldwide protest against the forces of "corporate globalization" is something new.

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It's the fledgling field of "hactivism," which blends Internet technology with the social protest producing new tools and methods that are not only annoying their targets - usually government and institutional Web sites - but also the ranks of traditional activists.

Ricardo Dominguez is a leading proponent of hactivism and his New York-based Electronic Disturbance Theater plans to conduct what he calls a "virtual sit-in" today at the same as the global protests against the G-8.

Mr. Dominguez's target is the Mexican government and its treatment of the people of Chiapas. Those who want to join the sit-in are encouraged to download free software that allows computers to repeatedly call up a Mexican government Web site, thus overloading its server and impairing its ability to function.

In addition, the theater's "electronic civil disobedience" will include a function so participants can ask the government Web site to do a search for "truth," presumably to tie it up further and make the symbolic point that the government is lying about the Zapatistas.

"Our intent is disturbance. We want to slow [the Web site] down and make them aware that there is a large community worldwide that knows what they're doing," says Dominguez.

Hactivists are a different breed from pure hackers, who invade computer systems usually out of mischief or to demonstrate vulnerabilities. But as the tools of hackers become more widely available, people with political objectives are increasingly using them and the Internet to attack their enemies.

The backdrop to this activism is an exploding use of the Internet by social movements. Because it can reach more people, more rapidly and less expensively than other forms of communication, the Internet is revolutionizing the way activists organize campaigns.

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But hactivists like Dominguez are continually searching for more potent uses of today's technology to make a statement. He's an actor and artist and sees his form of electronic civil disobedience as akin to traditional uses of street theater to call attention to social problems.

However, many social activists are either ambivalent or downright hostile toward this new form of protest.

"I think it's idiotic," says Ted Lewis, director of the Mexico program at the Global Exchange, a social-justice group based in San Francisco. "The problem with this tool, this use of the Internet, is that it's not constructive. To simply close down a Web site is not good Internet etiquette and if it gets turned around, it'll hurt free speech on the Internet."

The Electronic Disturbance Theater is not alone in disrupting Web sites. During the height of NATO's attacks on Yugoslavia, for instance, the official NATO Web site was bombarded with requests meant to overload it. Dominguez says a group of Serbs and Albanians used EDT software for attacks on the NATO site.

David Ronfeldt, a Rand specialist in the use of technology to support the Zapatistas in Mexico, says the flooding and defacing of Web sites is clearly on the rise. But it is difficult to know which are truly organized political acts and which are just lone acts of vandalism.

Further, he says, "it remains to be seen whether they become an effective or divisive force" within leftist protest circles.

Harry Cleaver at the University of Texas in Austin has studied the use of the Internet and social movements and concludes that the kind of actions espoused by EDT have been widely shunned by social activists of all stripes. Though it has gained some favor in Italy, attacking Web sites is not generally being embraced as a legitimate protest tactic, he says.

Some activists see room for attacks on Web sites, but only when it's part of a strategy with a clear purpose. "Who does it support? That's the key question," says Bob Schmitt, a manager of the Technology Project in Helena, Mont.

Dominguez says his group organized 15 virtual sit-ins last year, though this is the first time he's coordinated one with protests against the G-8 meeting. He says last year's activities drew about 90,000 participants and he's working on a program that will turn virtual sit-ins into marches by allowing more interactivity between participants.

Today's worldwide protests against the G-8 are flying under the banner "Reclaim the Streets" and are a loose affiliation of groups and individuals from all over the world. Protests are slated in over 40 countries.

One of the organizers of the G-8 protests in San Francisco, Juliette Beck, says the Internet has made it vastly easier and cheaper to coordinate such widespread protests. But despite those gains, attacking Web sites with the click of a computer mouse can never substitute for more traditional actions. "Nothing replaces people on the streets," she says.

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