"It all seemed to be going so well" – that's probably the best way to describe 2001.
During 2000 we seemed to be swaying the debate in our direction. All of a sudden reporters in the "soft" tech. media were saying that, "hacktivists have officially moved from nerdish extremists to become the political protest visionaries of the digital age".
In evidence to the US Congress, even eminent professors we're making the distinction, as we had always done, that the difference between cyber-terrorism and cyber-activism was fundamentally the level of public participation required to make the respective techniques viable.
In retrospect, we should have seen it coming; we should have seen that 'the powers that be' were just itching to find a hook to hang a repressive backlash upon.
The protests against the World Bank/IMF meeting in Prague in September 2000 had been fairly "heavy". It was clear in the run up to Quebec that 'the powers that be' were ratcheting-up the counter-protest policing to meet the growing support for the anti-globalisation movement (a sliding scale of violence against protesters that would peak at the G8 meeting in Genoa a couple of months later).
We'd received requests for assistance from the Quebec protest organisers; it was clear that, just like Seattle, 'robo-cop' policing was going to crack down on any protests that might burst the bubble of begign consensual politics working for the public good.
It was clear, we had to take part – and with the obvious emphasis on over-policing we called the action, The Mouse is Mightier than the Baton.
The main event of the early 2001 protest calendar was the 3rd Summit of the Americas in Quebec – a.k.a the FTAA, or the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
On the face of it Quebec could have been just another re-run of Seattle – but it wasn't. In part because it was a very different sort of protest (we were working with a number of other on-line activism groups during the event), but mainly because this time we had a documentary film crew following us around!
We needed a location to base our action in the UK, and as we'd helped out a group in Wales with a virtual action a couple of months before we thought we'd go back there again. Hence, when the Quebec events kicked off, we found ourselves in an eco-charity shop in Wales.
Making a documentary is a bit contrived; in one sense you have to accept that the film has to be made in a certain sequence so that everything can get done (e.g., a few of the scenes were shot a couple of weeks before the FTAA event so the film-makers could be in Quebec for the action itself), whilst at the same time you know that what you're doing will help you spread your message and so it's worth making a few compromises to get the job done.
The important thing is to ensure that you don't end up like a performing seal, taking direction from the film-makers for what you are doing to fit their view of who you are. Even if that means saying "nope" and refusing to continue. To be "true to yourself", sometimes working with the media is a game of brinkmanship because you don't want to compromise on a certain point, and they don't want to waste the time and effort they've already committed to covering your action.
Another aspect of documentary making is time. We were filming from February through to April, and the documentary itself, entitled Infowar: The Hacktivists (see full documentary below) wasn't ready for broadcast until the end of the year: first in Australia, and progressively around the world – though not in Britain! (where we had to arrange our own screenings for our supporters). This meant that, by the time we received feedback from the public around the world, we'd moved on to other things.
We continued to get quite good press too, and we put a lot of effort into working with journalists in order to balance the entirely pro-corporate message about the Internet that most of the media promulgated at that time. There had been an indifferent news item in Wired before the event, and some fairly positive reporting from other media around the world (e.g., New Zealand) – although MSNBC's article was a little surreal! A while after the event we had some very positive press from Lew Koch at Vmyths.
What became of more interesting after FTAA was the way that the corporate IT media were beginning to distort our work, and hype a fear of 'hacktivists' in order to try and scare the IT-challenged executives of large corporations into employing them.
We sort of covered that in the 'The Hacktivists' documentary – with the profile of Ben Venzke and his role 'policing' cyberspace. We'd raised this issue in 2000, when we discovered that an American company called iDefense was deliberately talking up non-existent threats.
In general the the IT security lobby were still as rabidly anti-on-line protest as before, and during 2001 we saw the same sharp practices – mostly talking up non-existent threats from erroneous Internet quotes (a lesson the world later learnt to question as a result of the Dodgy Dossier).
The specific examples we cite, apart from iDefense, are UK-based companies such as MI2G or MIS Corporate Defence. And of course, through the corporate-skewed media channels such as CNN, the old how we hacked the hackers myth was still being re-broadcast. The various and incompatible protestations of corporate security companies was covered at the time in an article by ZDNet –
Internet activists have spoken out today against misinformation they claim is being spread by IT security consultants about possible cyberthreats stemming from Tuesday's May Day protests.
Business development director at security firm MIS Matt Tomlinson warns on one IT Web site that: "groups such as the e-hippie collective, which attacks e-businesses, are boasting around 15,000 members worldwide... Corporates still have a reason to be worried. There's nothing to say groups won't carry out denial-of-service attacks, which are hard to defend against."
But Paul Mobbs, media and technical coordinator for the Electrohippie Collective, said: "We are aware that some IT security consultants have been spreading spurious stories about the electrohippies and a number of actions and events over the next few months. The only thing we know about at the moment is the next WTO meeting in Qatar for November."
A newsletter from corporate security firm iDefense warns: "While last year's May Day protests were marked by a certain degree of Internet organisation and street violence, preparations for protests [this year], have seen far more activity and a growing awareness by activists that the soft underbelly of capitalism lies in corporate Internet infrastructure."
It supports this by quoting from a post on an anti-capitalist bulletin board: "[A] single day of action will not impact on the capitalists' ability to exploit – the only thing these people understand is the profit margin. Therefore, our best line of attack should be to attack them where it counts most – economically. The best means to do so is to attack the infrastructure of their electronic systems."
Idefense, unlike MIS, admits that the electrohippie collective is not planning to get involved in cyberprotests on this occasion, but alleges that RTMark has been planning a "May Day virus" – a virus that shuts down computers on May Day, flashing a message about workers' rights and time off.
To put this article into perspective, electrohippies never had any members – there have always been less than a dozen people involved directly, and any support we received beyond that was purely voluntary and 'un-coordinated'.
Following the madness of Quebec the rest of the year was fairly quiet. We didn't get involved in Genoa (albeit, in retrospect, perhaps we should have), although our growing notoriety meant that we were becoming involved in some far more interesting projects – including travelling to do 'digital rights' workshops in Eastern Europe, or consulting and doing development work for groups working in states with repressive governments, mostly in Africa, Asia, and the former Soviet republics.
This was an interesting beginning to a set of projects that would come to dominate our work over the next few years. This side of our work is not, unfortunately, something we can talk openly about – if you're working with people who are being repressed by their governments, helping them to get stories and communications between activists and journalists outside that state, it's not something you can broadcast to the world!.
There some projects associated with the collective that were far more public, while utilizing some of the development work which had originally been evolved and trialled within the collective.
Then some really stupid people with a messed-up idea of religion decided to fly airplanes into the World Trade Center and The Pentagon...
One of the electrohippies stated the obvious in an email whilst events were still unfolding late on Tuesday September 11th – we are so stuffed! And they were right.
Support for our action against the next WTO conference in Qatar just evaporated; not because people didn't agree or support the action, but purely because they were so scared about what their own governments might do to them if they took part.
We were now in "The War Against Terror", and to be a target all you had to do was disagree with those in authority.
On that note, earlier in July Lew Koch had written –
The world is currently engulfed by a new McCarthyist frenzy; a technological witchhunt which labels, condemns and punishes Internet activists in one fell swoop, and one which threatens the precious freedoms of every single human being on this planet.
That didn't even begin to approach the state of affairs we were now entering. You didn't have to get "nasty" any more – people were being arrested in the USA and in Britain for wearing T-shirts! We had a growing problem of fundamentalism, but it wasn't abroad, it stalked our own domestic corridors of power!
It's a complete misrepresentation of the facts to say that 'The War Against Terror' (or, as we called it, TWAT) began in the weeks following 11/9.
At the end of 2000 the electrohippies had already carried out a study of the process surrounding the Terrorism Act in the UK, and we produced a longer analysis, published as Occasional Paper No.4 (produced for another event at the Institute of Contemporary Arts on campaigning), that covered the build-up to the 'The War Against Terror' within the policing of dissent and protest.
It was clear that 11/9 was the excuse they had been looking for; we returned the favour by making this event the excuse we were looking for – to launch a global action from the most remote place we could organise something... a tipi on top of a mountain in West Wales.
The title we gave this action – Anti-TWAT – spread around the globe, but not in the mainstream media! Out of all the actions we've ever mounted, Anti-TWAT is distinguished by the fact that the media just wouldn't go near the message (although obviously prescient given the evidence emerging from The Iraq War Inquiry) that it sought to promote.