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"Netwars" and Activists Power on the Internet


by Jason Wehling

March 25, 1995

Since the so-called Republican victory in the last U.S. election, the political Left has been sent reeling. In many places including the major media, we have been told that this victory spells a new revolution, a revolution for the Right. Regardless of the truth of this, many have felt that their activist work has been for not and that it has been largely ineffectual. Interestingly a Rand corporation researcher, David Ronfeldt, argues that contrary to the impotence felt by many social activists, they have become an important and powerful force fueled by the advent of the information revolution. Through computer and communication networks, especially via the world-wide Internet, grassroots campaigns have flourished, and the most importantly, government elites have taken notice.

Ronfeldt specializes in issues of national security, especially in the areas of Latin American and the impact of new informational technologies. Ronfeldt and another colleague coined the term "netwar" a couple years ago in a Rand document entitled "Cyberwar is Coming!". "Netwars" are actions by autonomous groups -- in the context of this article, especially advocacy groups and social movements -- that use informational networks to coordinate action to influence, change or fight government policy.

Ronfeldt's work became a flurry of discussion on the Internet in mid-March when Pacific News Service correspondent Joel Simon wrote an article about Ronfeldt's opinions on the influence of netwars on the political situation in Mexico. According to Simon, Ronfeldt holds that the work of social activists on the Internet has had a large influence -- helping to coordinate the large demonstrations in Mexico City in support of the Zapatistas and the proliferation of EZLN communiques across the world via computer networks. These actions, Ronfeldt argues, have allowed a network of groups that oppose the PRI to muster an international response, often within hours of actions by Zedillo's government. In effect, this has forced the Mexican government to maintain the facade of negotiations with the EZLN and has on many occasions, actually stopped the army from just going in to Chiapas and brutally massacring the Zapatistas.

Ronfeldt's position has many implications. First, Ronfeldt is not independent researcher. He is an employee of the notorious Rand corporation. Rand is, and has been since it's creation in 1948, a private appendage of the military industrial complex. Paul Dickson, author of the book "Think Tanks", described Rand as the "first military think tank... undoubtedly the most powerful research organization associated with the American military." The famous "Pentagon Papers" that where leaked to the press in June of 1971 that detailed the horrible U.S. involvement in Vietnam was produced by Rand.

Ronfeldt himself has authored many research papers for Rand, but his ties to the military don't end there. Ronfeldt has also written papers directly for the U.S. military on Military Communication and more interestingly, for the Central Intelligence Agency on leadership analysis. No, Ronfeldt's opinions were not written for aiding activists. It is obvious that the U.S. government and it's military and intelligence wings are very interested in what the Left is doing on the Internet.

Netwars: the Dissolution of Hierarchy and the Emergence of Networks

Ronfeldt argues that "the information revolution... disrupts and erodes the hierarchies around which institutions are normally designed. It diffuses and redistributes power, often to the benefit of what may be considered weaker, smaller actors". Continuing, "multi-organizational networks consist of (often small) organizations or parts of institutions that have linked together to act jointly... making it possible for diverse, dispersed actors to communicate, consult, coordinate, and operate together across greater distances, and on the basis of more and better information than ever."

Ronfeldt emphasizes that "some of the heaviest users of the new communications networks and technologies are progressive, center-left, and social activists... [which work on] human rights, peace, environmental, consumer, labor, immigration, racial and gender-based issues." In other words, social activists are on the cutting edge of the new and powerful "network" system of organizing.

All governments, especially the U.S. government, have been extremely antagonistic to this idea of effective use of information, especially from the political Left. This position is best stated by Samuel Huntington, Harvard Political Science professor and author of the U.S. section of the Trilateral Commission's book-length study, "The Crisis of Democracy". Basically writing in reaction to the mobilization of people normally isolated from the political process in the 1960s, Huntington argued in 1975 that "some of the problems of governance in the United States today stem from an excess of democracy... Needed, instead, is a greater degree of moderation of democracy."

Continuing, Huntington blatantly maintained that "the effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and non-involvement on the part of some individuals and groups... this marginality on the part of some groups is inherently undemocratic but it is also one of the factors which has enabled democracy to function effectively." In other words, major U.S. policy makers feel democracies are acceptable if they are limited and not very democratic.

To stop this increase in public participation, this "excess of democracy", Huntington argued that limits should exist on the media. "There is also the need to assure government the right to withhold information at the source... Journalists should develop their own standards of professionalism and create mechanisms, such as press councils, for enforcing these standards on themselves. The alternative could well be regulation by government." Obviously the government is interested in the control of information. If private institutions like the major media need regulation, be it self-regulation or directed by the government, the idea of free, uncontrolled flow of information on the Internet must mean that a new "crisis of democracy" has re-emerged in the eyes of the government elites.

To fight this, Ronfeldt maintains that the lesson is clear: "institutions can be defeated by networks, and it may take networks to counter networks." He argues that if the U.S. government and/or military is to fight this ideological war properly with the intend of winning -- and he does specifically mention ideology -- it must completely reorganize itself, scrapping hierarchical organization for a more autonomous and decentralized system: a network. In this way, he states, "we expect that... netwar may be uniquely suited to fighting non-state actors".

Ronfeldt's research and opinion should be flattering for the political Left. He is basically arguing that the efforts of activists on computers not only has been very effective or at least has the potential, but more importantly, argues that the only way to counter this work is to follow the lead of social activists. Ronfeldt emphasized in a personal correspondence that the "information revolution is also strengthening civil-society actors in many positive ways, and moreover that netwar is not necessarily a 'bad' thing that necessarily is a 'threat' to U.S. or other interests. It depends." At the same time, the Left should understand the important implications of Ronfeldt's work: government elites are not only watching these actions (big surprise), but are also attempting to work against them.

The Attack Has Already Begun

The U.S. government's antagonism to political activism is not new. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began what is now known as COINTELPRO, or Counter Intelligence Programs. These programs sought to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize" various political groups, such as the Black Panthers, AIM, ecological, anti-war, and women's rights groups. Many feel that these FBI activists have not stopped, pointing to the disruption and harassment of CISPES and Earth First! in the mid- to late-1980s.

Because of the very nature of the Internet and these growing communication networks, the issues are inherently international and transcend traditional national boundaries. For these reasons it is important to watch for attacks on these networks wherever they occur. And occur they have. Since the beginning of this year, a number of computer networks, so far confined to Europe, have been attacked or completely shut down.

In Italy on February 28, members of the Carabinieri Anti-Crime Special Operations Group raided the homes of a number of activists -- many active in the anarchist movement. They confiscated journals, magazines, pamphlets, diaries, and video tapes. They also took their personal computers, one of which hosted "BITS Against the Empire", a node of Cybernet and Fidonet networks. The warrant ridiculously charged them for "association with intent to subvert the democratic order", carrying a penalty of 7 to 15 years imprisonment for a conviction.

In the United Kingdom, a number of computer networks have recently been attacked. The Terminal Boredom bulletin board system (BBS) in Scotland was shutdown by police after the arrest of a hacker who was affiliated with the BBS. Spunk Press, the largest anarchist archive of published material cataloged on computer networks, also of the UK, has faced a media barrage which has falsely accused them of working with known terrorists like the Red Army Faction of Germany, of providing recipes for making bombs and of coordinating the "disruption of schools, looting of shops and attacks on multinational firms." Articles by the computer trade magazine, Computing, and even the Sunday London Times, entitled "Anarchism Runs Riot on the Superhighway" and "Anarchists Use Computer Highway For Subversion" respectively, nearly lead the organizer of Spunk Press to loose his job after the firm he works for received bad publicity. He has asked that his name not be mentioned. According to the book "Turning up the Heat: MI5 after that cold war" by Lara O'Hara, one of the journalists who wrote the Sunday Times article has contacts with MI5, the British equivalent of the FBI.

It is not coincidence that this attack has started first against anarchists and libertarian-socialists. They are currently one of the most organized political grouping on the Internet. Even Simon Hill, editor of Computing magazine, admits that "we have been amazed at the level of organization of these... groups who have appeared on the Internet in a short amount of time". According to Ronfeldt's thesis, this makes perfect sense. Who best can exploit a system that "erodes hierarchy" and requires the coordination of decentralized, autonomous groups in cooperative actions than anarchists and libertarian-socialists?

These attacks may not be confined to anarchists for long. Here in the U.S., a number of bills are before Congress that would affect a large number of political views. One is S390 (and HR896), which aims to change the FBI charter so that it can investigate political groups. It has bipartisan support from Senator Biden (D-DE) to Senator Specter (R-PA). This bill would effectively legalize COINTELPRO operations against political freedom.

But even more sinister as far a computer networks are concerned, is S314. This bill, introduced by Senators Exon (D-NE) and Gorton (R-WA), would prohibit not only individual speech that is "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent", but would prohibit any provider of telecommunications service (such as an Internet provider) from carrying such traffic, under threat of stiff penalties: $100,000 or two years in prison. According to the Center for Democracy and Technology, "the bill would compel service providers to chose between severely restricting the activities of their subscribers or completely shutting down their Email, Internet access and conferencing services under the threat of criminal liability." In other words, one option before the government is to just close down the Internet.

The government is not the only institution to notice the power of the Internet in the hands of activists. The Washington Post ("Mexican Rebels Using a High-Tech Weapon; Internet Helps Rally Support", by Tod Robberson), Newsweek ("When Words are the Best Weapon: How the Rebels Use the Internet and Satellite TV", by Russell Watson) and even CNN (Sunday, February 26) have done stories about the importance of the Internet and network communication organization with respect to the Zapatistas.

It is important to point out that the mainstream media isn't interested in the information that circulates across the Internet. No, they are interested in sensationalizing the activity, even demonizing it. They correctly see that the "rebels" possess an incredibly powerful tool, but the media doesn't report on what they either are missing or omitting.

Netwars Are Effective

A good example of this powerful tool is the incredible speed and range at which information travels the Internet about events concerning Mexico and the Zapatistas. When Alexander Cockburn wrote an article exposing a Chase Manhattan Bank memo about Chiapas and the Zapatistas in Counterpunch, only a small number of people read it because it is only a newsletter with a limited readership. The memo, written by Riordan Roett, was very important because it argued that "the [Mexican] government will need to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and of security policy". In other words, if the Mexican government wants investment from Chase, it will have to crush the Zapatistas.

This information was relatively ineffective when just confined to print. But when it was uploaded to the Internet (via a large number of List-servers and the USENET), it suddenly reached a very large number of people. These people in turn coordinated a protest against the U.S and Mexican governments and especially Chase Manhattan. Chase was eventually forced to attempt to distance itself from the Roett memo that it commissioned.

Anarchists and the Zapatistas is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Currently there are a myriad of social activist campaigns on the Internet. From local issues like the anti-Proposition 187 movement in California to a progressive college network campaign against the Republican "Contract [on] America," the network system of activism is not only working -- and working well as Ronfeldt admits -- but is growing. It is growing rapidly in numbers of people involved and growing in political and social effectiveness. There are many parallels between the current situation in Chiapas and the drawn out civil war in Guatemala, yet the Guatemalan military has been able to nearly kill without impunity while the Mexican military received a coordinated, international attack literally hours after they mobilize their troops. The reason is netwars are effective as Ronfeldt concedes, and when they are used they have been very influential.

What Are Their Options?

According to Ronfeldt's thesis, extreme measures such a S314 will not be the answer to the problems of governance elites, especially people like Huntington, foresee. Certainly the government sees this free information network as an annoying problem and will likely work to change the current trends. Actually destroying the Internet is not likely for a number of reasons. The opposition to such an undertaking would be too great.

A glimpse at the problem emerged when the government attempted last year to introduce the now infamous "Clipper Chip." This chip was to become the standard encryption for the U.S. The interesting part of the plan was that, while individuals, groups and corporations could send information across networks without fear of unwanted eyes peering into their documents, the government "Clipper Chip" would have a "backdoor" for intelligence agencies like the FBI. In other words, it was safe to all except the government, which would be able to read any message it wanted to. The Clinton administration had little support, aside from the FBI, CIA, National Security Agency (NSA) and AT&T, who was contracted to manufacture the chip. The opposition included a wide variety of the political spectrum from the far-Left to the far-Right. Apparently the Clinton administration didn't like the odds and proposed that the Clipper Chip would be a standard within the government only.

According to Ronfeldt's thesis, the idea of dismantling the Internet is not even an option. The Internet and "netwars" are here to stay, maintains Ronfeldt. The trick is to be better at it than groups the U.S. government opposes. As has been stated above, that means creating government networks that can be more effective than those networks that have been created and maintained by social activists. Of course, this has inherent problems of its own. How will U.S. military leaders react when they hear that the military must "erode" it's system of hierarchy to evolve into a decentralized and autonomous network of smaller parts?

Certainly there is a paradox in Ronfeldt's arguments.

Much more likely, at least for the time being is Huntington's notion of regulation of information. Currently, the question of how laws should be applied to the Internet and other computer networks is vague and undefined. It could fall into one of three related areas. First is print media, which is largely protected by the First amendment. Second is common carriers, such as the telephone and the U.S postal system -- they are governed by principles of "universal service" and "fair access." Lastly is broadcasting, which is highly regulated, primarily by the FCC.

One scenario is that the Internet would be subjected to FCC regulation. This might solve the problem voiced by Huntington -- where the government could create barriers and/or limit the free flow of information to better suit it's wishes. Obviously for social activists, a much better scenario is that the Internet, as well as all other computer networks, would be placed in the category of "common carriers," where universal access is assured.

This placement has yet to be resolved, but the battle lines are already being drawn. Under the guise of saving children from pedophiles, there is now a media campaign that pushes for regulation against pornography and other "obscenity" on the Internet. Last year, Carnegie-Mellon University attempted to restrict campus users from access to X-rated photographs on the Internet. Of course if this comes to pass this would be just the beginning -- the placement into the category of FCC regulation would be complete. On the other side is a large number of civil rights organizations like the ACLU and the Electronic Freedom Foundation who argue for the "common carrier" approach.

Another scenario is control, not via the government, but from private industry. Many people use the "highway" or "superhighway" analogy when describing the Internet. But a new analogy has emerged: the railroad or "super-railroad" if you will. Each one has very important connotations: the highway is public, the railroad is private. The problem springs from the growing pains that the Internet is currently experiencing. It is growing a very rapid pace. So rapid that the "backbone" of the Net, the high-speed data transmission line over which information travels is becoming out dated.

One proposal from ANS, a joint venture between IBM and MCI is to privatize the Internet "backbone," thus creating "toll-roads" for the Internet. In other words, they lay the new cables, they own them and users will have to "pay as they go." Currently the Internet works on cooperation between the computers (nodes) that make-up the Internet. As information travels from here to there, all the computers inbetween cooperate by allowing and helping the information pass through to its destination. With a "pay as you go" system, the cost of communication would rise and would effectively limit the ability for social activists and many other groups from participating in these "netwars."

This may be the long term solution, paralleling the fate of last century's new form of popular communication, the newspaper. Faced with the same problem, a cheap and accessable medium for expressing ideas available to the general population, the inital response was to enforce laws limiting its use (eg censorship laws). However, coercion is an ineffective means of social control and was soon abandoned in the face of better forces, forces implicit in the devlopment of any commodity under capitalism, namely the concentration of capital required to produce that commodity for a profit.

As capital costs increased, the laws were revoked as market forces ensured that only those with access to vast amounts of money could start even a weekly newspaper. In addition, the need for advertising to run a paper ensured big business control over its content. Hence, for example, we could see mainstream journals having free access web sites on the Internet (funded entirely by advertising) while dissident publications (who do not desire advertising nor the control of editoral decisions this implies) will have to charge in order for their web sites to exist and pay their way.

Under these conditions, a "pay as you go" backbone, sites and publications subsidised by advertising and high initial capital costs, the need for laws to control the information super highway are limited.

This, however, is still some way into the future. At present, this option is not available.

What Might We Do?

It is clear that Rand, and possibly other wings of the establishment, are not only interested in what activists are doing on the Internet, but they think it is working. It is also clear that they are studying our activities and analyzing our potential power. We should do the same, but obviously not from the perspective of inhibiting our work, but the opposite: how to further facilitate it.

Also, we should turn the tables as it were. They are studying our behavior and actions -- we should study theirs. As was outlined above, we should analyze their movements and attempt to anticipate attacks as much as possible.

As Ronfeldt argues repeatedly, the potential is there for us to be more effective. Information is getting out as is abundantly clear. But we can do better than just a coordination of raw information, which has been the majority of the "networking" so far on the Internet. To improve on the work that is being done, we should attempt to provide more -- especially in the area of indepth analysis. Not just what we are doing and what the establishment is doing, but more to the point, we should attempt to coordinate the dissemination of solid analysis of important events. In this way members of the activist network will not only have the advantage of up-to-date information of events, but also a good background analysis of what each event means, politically, socially and/or economically as the case may be.

The Flower as a Gift of Thanks

In a recent communique from the Zapatistas, written on March 17th, Subcommandante Marcos reiterated the importance of this network coordination. It is obvious from his words that these networks are making a real difference. He said, "and we learned that there were marches and songs and movies and other things that were not war in Chiapas, which is the part of Mexico where we live and die. And we learned that these things happened, and that "NO TO WAR!" was said in Spain and in France and in Italy and in Germany and in Russia and in England and in Japan and in Korea and in Canada and in the United States and in Argentina and in Uruguay and in Chile and in Venezuela and in Brazil and in other parts where it wasn't said but it was thought. And so we saw that there are good people in many parts of the world..."

Marcos obviously was touched by the fact that people have labored all over the world for the Zapatista cause. So he closed the communique with a personal thank you: "And we want to say to you, to everyone, thank you. And that if we had a flower we would give it to you... and when they are old, then they can talk with the children and young people of their country that, 'I struggled for Mexico at the end of the 20th century, and from over here I was there with them and I only know that they wanted what all human beings want, for it is not to be forgotten that they are human beings and for it to be remembered what democracy, liberty and justice are, and I did not know their faces but I did know their hearts and it was the same as ours'... Goodbye. Health and a promised flower: a green stem, a white flower, red leaves, and don't worry about the serpent, this that flaps its wings is an eagle which is in charge of it, you will see..."




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