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Appropriating the Internet for Global Activism

Nearly all activists use the Internet for e-mail and websites. But only a few have begun to harness the full power of the emerging networked world.

In the quest for global peace and social justice, the Internet and other emerging network technologies provide powerful tools to support our work. But most organizations have not moved beyond e-mail and basic websites—they haven't yet learned truly strategic uses of these technologies. Put simply, the tools are in our hands, but most of us have not yet decided what to build. Below, we present a glimpse of what the future might hold based on our research on organizations that are out front in their innovative use of these emerging technologies.

OneWorld—a voice for civil society
At first glance, OneWorld.netlooks like a straightforward news website focused on civil society issues. It contains compelling and professionally presented articles on HIV/AIDS, sustainable development, human rights, peace, and the digital divide.

Under the hood, however, the London-based OneWorld is a very different kind of site. It is a network of civil society content producers from around the world all working to paint a collective picture of a better world. Almost 100 percent of the content is drawn from the websites of OneWorld's 1,500 partner sites. In creating “the news” for a particular day, OneWorld editors pull the best material from this pool of partner sites, write new headlines and précis, and publish the material to the front page. At a global level, the coverage is in English. Regional coverage in five additional languages is provided by more than 10 regional and country sites.

While most civil society websites tell stories from a single organization's perspective, OneWorld presents the perspective of multiple organizations according to theme. The result is a diversity of opinion and content driven directly by the work and interests of civil society organizations.

Indymedia—grassroots open publishing
Since starting as a single Web site and media production storefront set up for the Seattle WTO protests in 1999, Indymedia has grown to more than 100 sites covering all continents. A single international site collects the best content from all of the locals.

Indymedia is among the best-known examples of open publishing. A typical local Indymedia site consists of a “wire” section that automatically presents open publishing material as it is posted to the site. In addition, the site contains a “news” column consisting of stories chosen or written by the local editorial team. Whether news or wire, all of these stories come from grassroots media activists.

“While other online alternative news sources often fill their Web pages with editorials, commentaries, and news analysis,” writes Gene Hyde, in an article published at www.firstmonday.org. “Indymedia's primary emphasis is in providing a Web outlet for filing original, first-hand coverage online through print, photos, audio, and video.”

Biwater censorship case—online activism
Online tactics can reverse corporate decisions in a few short days, as business interests scramble to avoid negative press. A good civil society example is the Biwater censorship case.

In the late 1990s, Biwater, a privately owned British corporation specializing in water privatization, tried to take control of a number of water concessions in South Africa. This led to public criticisms from the South African Municipal Workers Union, South Africa's Mail and Guardian newspaper, the LabourNet.org website, and others.

In April 1998, Biwater threatened legal action against the nonprofit Internet service providers (ISPs) that hosted the LabourNet and Mail and Guardian websites. Unable to afford an expensive legal battle, both ISPs removed the material critical of Biwater.

The removal of the pages turned out to be the beginning, not the end, of the fight against Biwater. LabourNet webmaster Chris Baily called on activists to use the Internet to fight back against BiWater's use of restrictive libel laws to throttle democratic debate. Two European ISPs dedicated to working with civil society — Antenna in the Netherlands and Inform in Denmark — responded.

Antenna and Inform, both member of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), mirrored the removed pages on their own servers. This meant that the pages were still accessible to the public but they were no longer housed within the British or South African jurisdictions where the “cease and desist” orders had been served.

Another eight APC members agreed to mirror the Biwater material, spreading the articles across servers in Europe and the Americas. With so many groups involved that were located in so many different countries, Biwater's legal challenge became almost impossible. Biwater sent no more letters on the issue.

Sarai/Waag—North/South collaboration
The Sarai/Waag Exchange provides a good example of how two civil society organizations—one from the North, the other from the South—use the Internet to collaborate on an equal level. The Exchange is an open-ended research partnership and series of fellowships aimed at getting to know one another by being immersed in each others' experiences, practices, and locality.

Sarai is a Delhi-based new media initiative that explores the new media landscape and seeks to change that landscape by organizing workshops and developing media labs and community projects.

One such project is the Cybermohalla computer centres, where people in the poor neighborhoods of Delhi record and communicate what is going on around them. “About 15 women and five men, most of them in their early 20s, turned barefoot journalists and report about their surroundings: their basti of dust, makeshift houses, corrugated iron, mud walls, narrow lanes, trading, smoking fires, noisy roosters, crying babies, and playing children that is in constant danger of being bulldozed because the entire settlement of a few thousand people is illegal, whatever that means,” writes Michael Hegener in an article on http://waag.sarai.net. “The main outlet of their work is a Hindi newspaper posted on the walls that informs about the things the passers-by may speak about, but about which they never read.”

The Amsterdam-based Waag Society shares Sarai's interest in seeing media from a variety of angles, carrying out research, developing software, and pointing out the connections between technology and culture. The Delhi and Amsterdam groups both have a passion for technology that is “open source”—placed in the public domain so it is available for anyone's use. This interest led the Exchange to hold an “open source and development cooperation” workshop in Amsterdam during the summer of 2003 involving practitioners from both South and North.

“The old aid model is nation to nation, for instance, Holland helps India,” writes Hegener, quoting Ravi Sundaram of Sarai. “Now it is possible for Waag Society and Sarai to collaborate at an equal level. We both learn though the collaboration: we work together, set up events together. We spoke little about the aid implications, the formal aspect. The most important thing about the Exchange is that, for the first time, it is possible to speak at an equal footing.”

The potential of the Sarai/Waag Exchange is significant enough that others have asked to join, and the partners have agreed to open it up—albeit cautiously. Only one new organization — the Alternative Law Forum — will be joining in 2004. If this goes well, another organization may join in 2005.

Citizen Lab—detecting hackers
As more civil society organizations go online, the importance of network security increases. Citizen Lab is developing a Secure Scan research project to help non-governmental non-profit organizations (NGOs) detect hackers and improve security on their networks. It plans to investigate the widespread anecdotal evidence that NGOs are being subjected to hacker attacks.

Human rights organizations appear to be especially likely to be targets of such attacks. For example, in January 2001, the Argentine human rights group Las Madres de la Plaza del Mayo reported being hacked for the third time and having information destroyed on their hard drives. The attacks were attributed to a group called Jorge Videla, the name of a military official who was part of the 1976-1983 dictatorship that was responsible for the disappearances of 15,000 to 30,000 people.

Citizen Lab works with NGOs in the South, auditing their network security and patching up any vulnerability. It plans to seek permission of the NGOs to install tools that allows the network to be monitored and any intrusion to be detected.

Exception, not the rule
In these organizations, we see a world where technology is at once central and forgotten. E-mail lists, websites, and databases are so deeply ingrained into the DNA of these organizations that they are no longer the point or the problem. The fluidity and flexibility of these technology tools have become the natural raw material from which more important things are built – coalitions, campaigns, knowledge, networks. They, in turn, create new forms of organization and ways of working together that are changing the terrain of civil society and giving a glimpse of an uncharted future. As this terrain starts to emerge and come into focus, we see glimpses of the future.


Adapted from the report of the Information Technology and International Cooperation Program of the Social Science Research Council. The full report—which profiles civil society organizations that have successfully appropriated the Internet and the challenges they continue to face—can be downloaded at www.ssrc.org/programs/itic/.

Mark Surman, president of Commons Group, has been developing leading-edge, community-based media projects for the past 15 years. Katherine Reilly is an independent researcher and consultant working on social and political aspects of new technologies in Canada and Latin America.

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