You would think from this German headline that the electrohippie collective sprang fully formed from the digital ether!
This wasn't the case.
In various guises the group of individuals who were later titled electrohippies had been working with on ICT problems with campaign groups since the late 1980s. People associated with the electrohippies over our existence have, by and large, been campaigners and activists – but what distinguishes them from other activists is their desire to solve problems in new ways.
Some have had involvement in pirate radio; some have worked or been volunteers for campaign groups; some had been part of innovative direct action protests or peace camps; all had sought to solve the problems they saw within the campaigns movement using these new technologies.
That same process was happening on the fringes of other campaign groups too, but it had yet to penetrate the centre where the growing role of information technology was still bound by the shackles of corporate "ITeology" – and the mainstream campaign groups are still paying (the license fees, that is) for this mistake today!
Long before anyone associated the terms WTO and electrohippies we, as a loose association of techno-savvy activists, were running training workshops on using computers (e.g. see the Campaigner's Computer Maintenance Mantra that was developed for workshops with campaigners around 1996). The Free Range Network was also, around 1996/7, running weekend training courses on HTML and developing web sites.
As early adopters we saw the potential of the technology, and our shared development of training events led us to come together an speculate what would be possible "if only...".
It was at one of these events, in early 1999, that whilst discussing some ideas an observer on the fringe of the discussion commented, "you're all a load of electronic hippies"
– the label stuck!
In the Summer of 1999, whilst giving a workshop, discussions started with some campaigners who were going to the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference in Seattle in November. Even discounting the problems of getting visas and a place to stay to join the action, the costs of getting to Seattle were for most interested campaigners prohibitive.
The moment we announced it the world went mad; journalists who would never normally cover our everyday events started to get in touch – we even took part in a Newsnight film, as well as 'advising' with some of the other coverage of the virtual N30.
As the on-line action progressed things became steadily more bizarre in terms of how the media approached our actions. Whilst the seemingly media choreographed scenes of street protest were emblazoned across the mainstream media, the reaction to the on-line action varied widely.
According to The Independent,
"The so-called Electrohippies say they are attempting to block the flow of information at the US summit by overloading the WTO's website with electronic junk mail"
"Junk mail"? A curious statement as we were not using email as part of the action.
In an attempt to belittle our actions the WTO's service providers were also, both during and after the event, spinning misinformation about their response to our action. We noted this, quite some time later, when Declan McCullagh at Wired stated,
"So much for the hippies: Network administrators are already planning how to derail possible denial-of-service attacks by the leftist ElectroHippies... One possible response: Redirecting such abusive traffic to the ElectroHippies' own site."
That's an interesting idea for "derailing" our actions, given that the WTO's servers were not being 'attacked' from the Free Range Activism Website – the action was enabled by the tens of thousands of individual computer users running a script within web page on their own computer.
However, we should never let such facts get in the way of a good story!
Other media outlets replayed the misinformation that the electrohippies had to relocate our servers as a result of the WTO's service provide sending the traffic back to our site. In fact our service provider never moved our site, but instead we were given a new DNS address to increase our capacity.
Looking at the server logs from the days covering the action, no one domain/IP address represented more than 0.14% of the total requests for the period – from a total of about 600,000 hits to the web site, of which about 400,000 were unique requests for the action pages.
The reason the claimed 'counter-strike' had no effect was that we designed the action that way. The basic problem was that the media just didn't understand what was going on, and accepted any old cods-wallop about the "mod_rewrite rule" without question – whilst those that should have known better, predominantly the tech. media, were biased against us from the outset because we represented the antithesis of the corporate IT paradigm they sought to applaud.
The system we used was a client-side script; put simply, the data packets came not from single server (as in traditional 'zombie-enabled' DoS exploits), they came from the thousands of individual computer users around the world who were taking part in the action.
In contrast to the oft-made "script-kiddie" jibe, implying a lack of knowledge or understanding on our part, we deliberately designed this whole action from the outset with the idea that our own site would come under attack, or our ISP would be pressured to remove it.
In the event our ISP was immensely supportive, and the deliberate design features of our action script meant that it didn't require a server to make it work. Blocking our own server would have made no difference. Of course, such realities were not relayed by the media at the time – too much reality is bad for business.
And after New Year, things didn't get any better…