We issued our take on the whole scene, in our Occasional Paper no.1, and that didn't make things any better. We had at least started a debate on how, in a virtual world, we are able to express ourselves politically. This was reflected in various ways:
At one extreme, according to the 'TechTarget' web site –
A group calling itself the Electrohippies, a U.K.-based organization that practices "electronic activism and civil disobedience," bombards the WTO Web site with http-redirects in a massive denial-of-service attack attempting to bring the site down. One group is pounding the pavement and hurling debris while the other is pounding the keyboard hurling electronic requests to a server. Both qualify as forms of protest, both are forms of political activism, but some argue that the latter is a crime, one that's on the rise.
At the other, The Guardian, in a long piece on cyber-activism during the Christmas silly-season –
One firm described the Electrohippies as "terrorists" for their WTO action. Yet the Electrohippies refuse to intrude into computer systems. "I think we have really twisted values," says Dr Taylor. "In the Kosovan war the Pentagon was scared of using cyber warfare in case it was a war crime – but they bombed civilians. It seems to me that it's quite skewed values by which 1,500 lives are less relevant than the legal elements of cyber war.".
Shortly after our release of our view on denial-of-service as an on-line protest tool we received the first of a number of broadsides from The Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc), a hacker group based in the USA. For some reason they objected to our efforts as a "violation of the First Amendment" – quite how we can violate a legal instrument that has no effect within our own country, or in fact within the digital domain in general, is a curious question.
In effect what cDc are saying is that 'the US system of government is brilliant and we're going to ensure that everyone else is subject to it'. OK, so that's over-simplifying things a bit, but in effect what cDc are espousing is that the historical US cultural domination of all things digital should be perpetuated.
For us this throws up the point we made earlier: the contrast between the extant individualism – a result of US-based domination of the institutions of computer technology and the Internet – that has guided the development of on-line systems in the past; and the more realistic collectivist principles that inevitably emerge when you take a technology that once belonged to an elite and allow wider participation in its operation.
cDc might not like this fact, but 'freedom' is not an individual issue, it's a collective issue, and when a minority seek – through the use of security barriers and phalanx's of public relations and corporate interests – to dominate the global agenda then the mass of the public have a right to be heard even if that involves being obstructive.
There is only one legal instrument that can be applied globally – The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On the balance of powers and actions, it is our view that groups like the WTO are, directly and by their chosen mode of action, seeking to negate the rights and freedoms established by the UDHR. Our actions with regard to the Seattle conference are redressing the imbalance that their elitist structure seeks to impose on the global population.
In contrast to their accusations of "violation of the First Amendment", we could argue that cDc, through tools such as BackOrifice, are directly breaching Article 12 of the UDHR ("No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation."). We never have breached the security of any system in order to do what we do – we just make them do precisely what they're designed to do, but in ways that their creators had not necessarily intended.
There was however one really positive outcome of the whole WTO/Seattle experience. Whilst working on the Seattle action we realized the practical value of Linux – or rather, Linux ceased to be an abstract concept when, in order to try out some on-line activism ideas, we installed Linux on a couple of old machines in early 2000.
As noted in one of the Free Range Network's publications on free and open source software (FOSS), the home/non-professional use of computers has always been dominated by software piracy. Piracy essential if ordinary people are to gain access to the programs required to use computers effectively, especially in the poorer nations of the world.
Using Linux was a revelation; not just the installation process, which was dream in comparison to Micro$oft systems, but the range of programs that were freely available with a standard Linux distribution.
After experimenting with Linux during 1999/2000, in December 2000 we wrote Occasional Paper 2 outlining the future we saw for free software. By mid-2001, some electrohippies had "taken the pledge" – they'd stopped using MSDOS/Windows altogether and only used Linux/FOSS. In retrospect, what we determined in the early 2000s is still entirely correct today – apart from the fact that Gnu/Linux is SO much better today. From where we sit, we can't believe that any dedicated activist could possibly dream of using the expensive, restrictive and exploitative proprietary software when there were free and open alternative available.
By 2001 the debate on cyber-activism was definitely shifting from being an IT-industry-only affair to a more open and participative discussion.
We even started to make silly films about it. In particular, 'teRBEV' – the electrohippies Really Badly Edited Video – an experimental a 1-hour educational video made with two video recorders and a camcorder connected together – just to show you didn't need an expensive editing suite to make a video.
In a curious shift of fate, far from being spurned we were being invited to speak at conferences and lecture at universities.
For example, in March 2001 we were invited to speak at the Institute of Contemporary Arts as part of their day of events, Hacktivists: Cyberwarriors Or Political Agoraphobics?. We produced a paper especially for the day, Occasional Paper 3, raising some interesting and still-to-be-addresses issues about who runs the Internet – an issue that's still pressing today with the advent of paywalls and, increasingly, a two-speed world between those who can afford fast broadband and those still restricted to dial-up.