From the Tank Turret to Usenet: First International Case of Digital Activism?

[UPDATED] In this age of pervasive social media, it’s easy to forget that digital activism precedes the world wide web. In 1991, activist geeks from the Soviet Union, the US, and Western Europe employedUsenetas an alternative form of mass mediato relay information about a coup attemptagainst Mikhail Gorbachev and protect the reform process.

Usenet, a forum-email hybrid, consisted of topical newsgroups of threaded comments. News of the coup was broadcast on the newsgrouptalk.politics.soviet, with information flowing through a Russian network called Relcom, theonly network to provide Russians a domestic andinternational internet connection.

Information was passed into, out of, and through Russia via Relcom’s Usenet service. This prevented the coup initiators – hardline Communists who opposed Gorbachev’s reforms – from creating an information black-out, which they attempted to create by censoring Russian TV broadcasts, taking radio stations off the air, blocking CNN, and even destroying the fax machines at publishing houses. Relcom was not shut down due to simple ignorance,said one newsgroup participant: “Thanks [sic.] Heaven, these cretins don’t consider usmass media!”

Commentators likeEthan Zuckermanof MIT’s Center for Civic Media have pointed out that during the Arab Springmedia ecologies were at work in disseminating information about the revolutions. It was not just social media or mobile phones or Al Jazeera, it was all of them working in concert.

Though much Russian media was shut down, a media ecology was also at work during the 1991 coup. Supporters in the West transmitted CNN and BBC broadcasts into Russia via Usenet. According to Larry Press,a Californian academic who participated in the information exchange and subsequently published accounts of the events,”pay phones were working in Moscow,and people in the streets could phone news in” to Demos, the programmers collective that founded Relcom and posted most of the Russian news on talk.politics.soviet during the coup attempt.

The coup occurred when bothSoviet head of state Gorbachev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin were away from Moscow. In an odd twist, even after Yeltsin returned to Moscow, he had no access to mass media, and was forced to disseminate his declaration of opposition via paper flyers. The Usenet activists also helped to distribute his statements via talk.politics.soviet. According to Larry Press, “a copy of the letter Boris Yeltsin read from a tank turret in front of the Russian Parliament building was brought to Demos headquarters (a short trip), entered into a computer, and forwarded across the network.”

Founded only a year earlier, Relcom had surprising reach. At the time of the coup seventy Soviet cities “from Leningrad in theWest to Vladivostok in the East” had connections, according to Press. These connections were housed within a surprising variety of civil society organizations. Wrote Press later that year, “395 organizations were using it–universities, research institutes, stock and commodity exchanges,news services, high schools, politicians, and government agencies.” Relcom had a real capacity for national broadcast.

Despite attempts to keep the Russian people in the dark, information was able to spread enough that a group of unarmed Muscovites rallied around Yeltsin in the White House, which housed the legislature, and used trolley cars and street cleaning machines to block the tanks and military units descending on the building. Rather than launch a bloody attack in the middle of the capital, the coup leaders stepped down, Gorbachev retained his position, and the reforms continued. Less than six months later, the Soviet Union was dissolved.

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Eternally Contested Internet: The 1980’s

A Moment of Collaboration

The overarching theme of this series on the history – and pre-history – of the Internet is conflict: different actors with different goals and visions shaping the medium. The 1960’s saw a tension between the Cold War and the counter-culture. The 1970’s saw the rise of commercial firms since advances in processing power meant that mass-produced “microcomputers” (desktops) could be sold to businesses, rather than a few hugely expensive machines going to universities and the government.

The 1980’s broke this pattern of conflict. It was a rare moment when a single vision – adoption of the values of openness and collaboration for the common good – were unquestionably at the fore. It was in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s that the technical and ideological foundation of the Internet – which began in the high-tech Silicon Valley / high-karma San Francisco milieu of the Bay Area in the 1960’s – were finally “baked in.”

The Internet Learns a Single Free Language

The first critical development was that a software for computer networking and data transfer was developed using government funding and was thus free to use by any hardware or software designer. It was called TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol) and was extremely robust. In fact, it is extremely robust: Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4), first defined in 1980, is still running the Internet today. That TCP/IP became the dominant communication protocol of the Internet meant thatthe Internet was born as a public entity rather than a commercial one.

In the late 70’s and early 80’s there were already a small number of computer networks – local area networks (LANs) – that existed in offices or university. The problem was that they all used different languages to talk to one another. Without a common language, it would be impossible to connect the networks to one another and create the “internetwork” that became the Internet.

In 1976 Vint Cerf (above), now Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist, went to work for DARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office, the Defense Department project that began the global Internet. DARPA’s vision was still a Cold War one. As Cerf described in 2010, “DARPA was looking for ways to build command-and-control systems that had no central structure, and were highly distributed, and that could be readily reconstituted.” This meant that networks needed to be connected to one another so that there would be multiple paths from any computer to another. Isolated networks had limited value. They were connected, but only within a single institution.

As a result, Cerf and Robert Kahn, co-inventor of TCP/IP and also a scientist at DARPA, began encouraging university LANs to connect to ARPANET, the DARPA computer network that formed the core of the modern Internet. In his book Net Effect, Thomas Streeter explains how Cerf and Kahn used free TCP/IP software – and the desire to connect – as incentives to turn isolated networks into a larger internetworked Internet:

The goal, moreover, was not to be secretive and exclusive. In 1980, when ARPANET’s Vint Cerf met with a group of computer science professors from across the country, he offered to connect the ARPANET to a proposed research network if it adopted TCP/IP protocols. This set the trend towards encouraging open access to the internet, which would become the informal policy throughout the 1980’s….

The Military Gives up Control of the Internet

The first amazing development of the 1980’s was the rise of free software for connecting to and transferring data across the Internet. The second amazing development was that the Internet lost its military character and became a civilian network. In 1983 ARPANET was split into a military and civilian Internet. The civilian Internet moved out of the Department of Defense and into the ownership of the research-focused National Science Foundation. It was the beginning of the Internet that we know today.

Why Did the Government Geeks Beat Out the Capitalists and Cold Warriors?

Why was this able to occur? Why didn’t the military fight for control of the Internet or businesses challenge TCP/IP with proprietary protocols that would have forever fragmented the Internet? One reason is that both the military and commercial firms were distracted. DARPA’s high-profile computing project at the time was Strategic Computing Initiative (SCI), a $1 billion artificial intelligence initiative meant to push back against Japan’s advances in the field.

Commercial firms were still focused on selling individual computers. “The U.S. mainstream,” writes Streeter, “was romancing the entrepreneurial tale of stand-alone microcomputers in the 1980’s.” Since the “Internet” of the time was a research network with few applications composed of unconnected LANs at a few firms and universities and a military-owned ARPANET, one can forgive them for not seeing the commercial value in it.

Firms did build their own proprietary Internet protocol software, like Xerox’s XNS and Apple’s AppleTalk, but this software failed to gain market share because TCP/IP was 1) free 2) worked really well and 3) was first to market because it was the protocol of the ARPANET. Because the deck was already stacked against them, commercial firms were convinced to adopt TCP/IP by the end of the 1980’s.

Unsung Heros

Despite these contextual factors, it would be unfair to diminish the efforts of individuals to build the open Internet we know today. Most of the men (yes, by far men) who opened the Internet to the public are unknown. Let’s look at some of the key players.

Whereas we now associate the military establishment with secrecy and aggressive isolation, the Pentagon point person for ARPANET was Barry Leiner, a man who, like Kahn and Cerf, convinced many private companies to adopt TCP/IP. His time working in think tanks, private industry and the government made him an excellent bridge-builder and his achievement in encouraging the adoption of TCP/IP was equivalent to “persuading the peoples of the world to stop speaking English, French, Russian or Chinese and instead invent and adopt a new language that works even better and allows everyone to communicate with one another.” It was his close relationship with Steve Wolff of the National Science Foundation that allowed for that smooth transition of the Internet into the civilian sphere. Wolff, who got an electrical engineering degree from Swarthmore, was perfectly positioned to bridge the worlds of academic research and high tech.

The Director of DARPA in the early 1980’s, Robert Cooper, was also more interested in building knowledge than achieving military goals. In a 1993 interview he described his criterion for success of a DARPA project:

There were two criteria… one objective I had in the basic research area was to expand the support mainly to graduate students in computer sciences at the key universities… The other criterion for success… was whether some of these ideas… actually got into military systems, and I don’t think the jury is in on how much of that occurred….

This dedication often took dramatic turns, as this anecdote about Vint Cerf indicates. Cerf is a sharp dresser whose frequent attire is a three-piece suit:

At a 1992 meeting that marked a pivotal juncture for the Internet Protocol, engineers were at one another’s throats over a controversial issue. Dr. Cerf took the podium and… proceeded to strip…. He stopped when he reached a T-shirt emblazoned with “I P on Everything,” an inside joke referring to the ubiquity of the Internet Protocol. The audience, he said, “went nuts,” and the tension dissolved. One member of the audience rushed to the podium and placed a $5 bill in Dr. Cerf’s waistband.

There are a few moments in history where the right mix of contextual factors and individual ability come together to take an action with a dramatic positive impact on global human history. In the history of the Internet, the 1980’s was such a period. It was a moment when the right people were in the right positions and something incredibly unlikely, and incredibly good for humankind, occurred.

Eternally Contested Internet: The 1970’s

During the 1960?s, when computers filled rooms or entire buildings, they were tools of academic computation and war. Yet there was an alternative vision, exemplified in the Whole Earth Catalog, that information could be collected and disseminated by and for the people.

In the 1970’s, as computers became more reliable, smaller, and (marginally) less expensive, a new potential consumer joined the computer market: the American corporation. The computer was not only useful to universities for carrying out complex computations, or to governments wishing to shoot Soviet bombers out of the skies, but also to companies wishing to increase workplace efficiency. In his book,Net Effect, sociologist Thomas Streeter describes these four competing visions of the computer’s value:

While the corporate community was struggling with the floundering effort to implement Taylorized “offices of the future” [and] the military was imagining global command-and-control systems with the ARPANET, and descendants of [researcher and inventor Douglas] Engelbart were exploring the encyclopedic vision of computing … a community [was] promulgating a distinctive countercultural vision of computers as creative writing machines that enabled self-exploration and self expression.

In the 1960s, the Bay Area was the center of American hippie-dom (thanks to the vibrant counterculture scene in San Francisco) and a center of technological innovation (thanks to the tech businesses nurtured by Stanford University). This strange juxtaposition of high-tech and high-karma led to an unexpected technological elite: flower children as computer engineers. The idea of a computer as an elite machine for efficiency or military advantage did not appeal to their values, which were anti-war, anti-establishment, and pro-personal expression. Even the programmers working on ARPANET, the Internet precursor funded by the Department of Defense, wore sneakers and peace pins to briefings at the Pentagon.

In his influential 1974 book, Computer Lib/Dream Machines, successful technology philosopher and failed entrepreneur Ted Nelson described the desire to redefine the computer:

Somehow the idea is abroad that computer activities are uncreative…. This is categorically false. Computers involve imagination and creation at the highest level. Computers are an involvement you can really get into, regardless of your trip or your karma…. COMPUTERS BELONG TO ALL HUMAN KIND.

This idea of computers being creative, being for everyone, ran against the logic of companies like IBM and Xerox. Engineers were free to hang out in the “bean-bag room” of Xerox’s Palo Alto research center (above), but they were focused on creating machines for the business market. A 1975 article in Business Week explains the corporate vision of “minicomputers” (desktop units):

Word processing is the focal point today for competition in the upcoming office-of-the-future market…. Two years ago, [Xerox] Chairman C. Peter McColough… said: “In the next decade, if we are to generate real efficiencies in the office, we’re going to have to alter traditional structures. The idea of one secretary for one executive is no longer efficient or economical. And we have to reduce and reposition the role of paper.”

While technology manufacturers were thinking in the practical terms of the office – document creation, secretaries, paper usage – an entirely different culture was forming among hobbyists. In a 1972 article for Rolling Stone, entitled “Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums,”Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand described a primitive computer game called Spacewar, created by a new type of computer engineer, the “hacker” (“A true hacker is not a group person. He’s a person who loves to stay up all night, he and the machine in a love-hate relationship…”). In the article, Brand explains the need for broader access to computers to reveal their creative potential:

Until computers come to the people we will have no real idea of their most natural functions. Up to the present their cost and size has kept them in the province of rich and powerful institutions, who, understandably, have developed them primarily as bookkeeping, sorting and control devices…. The hackers made Spacewar, not the planners. When computers become available to everybody, the hackers take over…. That might enhance things … like the richness and rigor of spontaneous creation and of human interaction….

In the vision of Business Week, smaller computers were an opportunity to increase profits and provide office efficiencies. In the vision of Rolling Stone, smaller computers were an opportunity to hack – to express one’s self, to be creative, to have passionately unproductive fun.

Both sides won. While the social media world of today is far more a place of “the richness and rigor of spontaneous creation and of human interaction” than of office efficiency (just ask the cubicle drone on Facebook), the social media world is owned by corporations. Ted Nelson’s imagined world of “imagination and creation at the highest level” is big business for Apple, Flickr (Yahoo), and YouTube (Google). Both sides won… and so the contest continues.


Eternally Contested Internet: The 1960’s

Is the Internet a boon to capitalists or anarchists? Tyrants or dissidents? The powerful or the powerless? The short answer is “yes.” The Internet has made fortunes in e-commerce just as it aids hackers who wish to attack online storefronts (see Anonymous’s attack of in 2010). The Internet makes it easier for oppressive governments to track and control public political speech, just as it has created spaces wherepublic political speech is easier to create than ever before (see China’s weibo microblogging services). While the Internet allows anyone with access to an Internet connection the ability to upload a YouTube video or create a blog or Facebook page for free, those services are owned by private corporations with market valuations in the billions. Your self expression is their pay-day.

We should not be surprised that today’s Internet is contradictory; it always has been. In fact, this contestation over the meaning of the Internet even precedes the Internet itself. As an illustration, let’s go back to the 1960’s, an era of contestation if ever there was one. On the one hand it was an era of unprecedented challenge to authority. Movements for gay rights, civil rights, and women’s liberation surged in the US and thirty-three African countries gained independence. It was also a time of great violence and repression. It was the height of the Cold War, a decade that began with the Bay of Pigs invasion (a moment when the Cold War almost got Hot) and included a vicious proxy war in Vietnam, the suppression of the Prague Spring, and the violent Cultural Revolution in China, in which at least a million people were killed.

SAGE equipment at the Computer History Museum

In this decade two precursors to the Internet emerged. The first was SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment), a huge and hugely-expensive government-funded MIT and IBM-built compute, which connected radar tracking stations for the purpose of identifying and firing upon Soviet bombers in US airspace. Though the first SAGE Division became operational in 1959, by 1963 there were 22 Sector Direction Centers across the country, which collected radar data, transmitted digitally through telephone modems. At each center an operator could read radar data on a yellow terminal screen (see left) and then give commands as to whether to engage with targets (the final human decision is what made the system “semi-automatic”).

This vision of the Internet was non-generative (computers built for a single function), controlled by elites (government, corporations, top universities), not accessible to or designed for public use, and tremendously expensive. The basic Internet structure provided by the telephone modems was part of a secret government project and was a weapon of war. Each SAGE computer weighed 300 tons and filled a four-story building. The entire project cost approximately $10 billion dollars. There is debate as to whether the system was ever functional and, in any case, it never shot down a single Soviet bomber.

cover of the first Whole Earth Catalog

In 1968 an entirely different vision of the Internet was born, this time on paper. It was the Whole Earth Catalog. Its creator, Stewart Brand was – not to put too fine a point on it – a hippie. He was a friend of Ken Kesey‘s, was profiled in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and originally envisioned the catalog as a resource for people living in the back-to-the-land commune movement. (The catalog includes sections like “Shelter and Land Use” and “Industry and Craft”.)

Yet there was a greater goal. J. Baldwin, one of the the catalog’s editors, remembers Brand’s vision: “I want to make this thing called a ‘whole Earth’ catalog so that anyone on Earth can pick up a telephone and find out the complete information on anything.” As Steve Jobs pointed out forty years later, “it was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along.” The last WEC was published in 1998, when the Internet made it obsolete by serving the same purpose more efficiently.

Where SAGE was narrow and non-generative, the WEC was full of user-generated content. Informed individuals were paid $10 to review a product and the writing style was friendly and personal, like a blog post. Where SAGE was a private endeavor that enriched a private company, IBM, the WEC was not designed to make money. The catalog did not sell the products it listed, but rather provided listings of reliable vendors. Where SAGE was not designed for public use, WEC was designed specifically to make the world’s information accessible to ordinary people – even if they were living out on a commune. And it was not only made for ordinary (free-thinking, quirky, iconoclastic) people, it was made with them. A page from a 1969 catalog notes, “If the supplier gives you poor service, please let us know. That information can be added to his review.” WEC was apparently also a predecessor of Yelp.

Though the Internet of today looks a lot more like the Whole Earth Catalog than like SAGE, it is still being contested, right now through SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), which aims to stop the online distribution of pirated media by making it easier to shut down sites that distribute it. More worryingly, SOPA also makes Internet service providers and social media platforms liable for pirated content shared on their platform, in effect encouraging them to pro-actively censor content the way China social media platforms already do. (Read more about the implications of SOPA here, from Rebecca MacKinnon and Ivan Sigal).

Is the Internet a boon to capitalists or anarchists? Corporations or individuals? Producers or consumers? The answer is still being contested.



The Proof is in the Pendulum: a History of Digital Activism and Repression

Purist arguments of cyber-optimism and cyber-pessimism are becoming increasingly irrelevant as evidence of digital technology’s ability to both empower and repress accumulates. However, what is the basis of this argument beyond anecdotalism of a slightly broader scope?

I would argue that in the past five year we have witnessed a pendulum swing from activist advantage to government revanche to dense tactical contention between the two. According to the initial findings of the Global Digital Activism Data Set, digital activism (cases of digital technology use to achieve social or political change) did not really take off until the second half of the first decade of this millennium. Though there were a few politically-themed BBS forums in the 1980’s, the graph below shows that that the first real emergence correlates to the commercialization of the World Wide Web and Internet services in the late 1990’s, while the appearance of exponential growth correlates to the emergence of social media (public Facebook, 2006; YouTube, 2005; Twitter, 2006).

Between initial emergence and exponential growth the pendulum swung back and digital repression began. The most sophisticated and influential censorship system, the Chinese firewall, began development in 1998 and was launched in 2003. As the first wave to social media users, bloggers were also the first to be repressed. That same year, in Iran, Sina Motellabi became the first blogger arrested for political activities. The OpenNet Initiative, a project to “investigate, expose and analyze Internet filtering and surveillance practices” began work in 2004. In 2007 the international blog aggregator Global Voices launched its Advocacy project, “dedicated to protecting freedom of expression and free access to information online.”

From the beginning, we can see this history as a swinging pendulum in which activists tactically innovate and repressive governments respond. It could be argued that the first instance of the effective use of digital tactics in furtherance of an activist campaign (as opposed to as a reporting mechanism) was the use of the web in 1994 by Mexico’s Zapatistas. Though governments began to take action against thrill-seeking hackers as early as 1990’s Operation Sundevil, and China began licensing access and persecuting criminal activities in 1994, I would argue that the first instance of digital repression was the December 1997 issuance of updates to the Security Management Procedures in Internet Accessing, a regulation issued by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security that allowed the government to levy fines for “defaming government agencies,” “splitting the nation,” and leaking “state secrets.” Unlike previous Internet regulation regarding access licensing and cyber-crime and censorship of pornography, this regulation is the first I’ve found to specifically target anti-regime political speech (though a 1996 Singaporean regulation censoring “contents which undermine the public confidence in the administration of justice” brushes very close to that line).

There has even been a pendular motion in the recognition of the effects of digital activism and digital repression on global politics. Clay Shirky’s cyber-optimist tome Here Comes Everybody was published in 2009, while Evgeny Morozov’s cyber-pessimist counter-work The Net Delusion was published in early 2011. Now, thanks to the Arab Spring, we are back to focusing on digital activism.

This pendular motion continues into the present day, with digital tactics and counter-tactics most recently exhibited in Egypt, where activists used the Internet to define the political contest and mobilize supporters and the government responded by shutting the whole system down. Though the activists eventually won in Egypt, it seems that forces of digital repression (both government agents and pro-government citizens) now have the upper hand in Syria.

This pendular motion of tactical innovation and government response was previously referred to as a cat-and-mouse game by Patrick Meier of Ushahidi, who asked in a 2009 blog post:

Is this formidable mix [of a political will to obstruct and a technically competent bureaucracy] enough to smoke out digital activist networks in authoritarian states? “The result,” opines Evgeny [Morozov], “is a cat-and-mouse game in which protestors try to hide from the authorities by caring [sic.] out unconventional niches.” So is Tom-the-cyber-cat going to finally do away with cyber-mouse-Jerry?… I’m not ready to place my bets on either Tom or Jerry. I’d rather be up front and say, I don’t know. It depends.

I’d like to update Patrick’s assertion with a little more certainty: no one will win the cat-and-mouse game. Though there is not yet a Global Digital Repression Data Set, I would bet that it would now also exhibit exponential growth as widely-publicized cases of digital activism in the media (and inter-government cooperation) mean repressive governments are becoming ever more savvy about the political uses of digital technology and are developing their own responses. In fact, as governments put more of their significant resources toward the task, I would not be surprised if in the future we see governments taking the tactical lead and activists taking the reactive position. This is not to imply that governments will win – the Internet still has significant uses for activists – but it is to say that neither side is likely to win soon.

The tactical upper hand is likely to be illusory to both as activists have greater capacity for creative experimentation on their side through their greater numbers and a resilient network infrastructure while governments have greater financial resources and control over that infrastructure within their territories. Decisions on privacy and real name policies will affect the field of play, giving governments an advantage if they are enforced and activists an advantage if they are not. Still, the real tactic battle of digital activist versus repressive government has just begun and the pendulum has just begun to swing.


image: Flickr/Javi Masa 

Digital Activism Through The Ages: Continuing the Flashback

Following my previouspost, Digital Activism: A Look Back,on the history of evolution of digital activism thought, this post will continue to reflect on some scholarly works that highlight interesting cases of early digital activism that used the Internet to transform local organizing into global movements, a trend that grows and is more widely acknowledged today.

Information overload is consuming most of the rational idea spaces these days, with every blogger expressing an opinion and a distorted understanding of citizen journalism. However, the increase in “noise” also means that there is more attention to a wider variety of issues than was the case in earlier years. There is a continued importance devoted to offline action in international media. However, online action has begun to demand a significant amount of coverage as well. Government interventions and restrictions on internet freedom are mainstream news items today. However, it is interesting to note the precursors that have laid this road to mainstream showcase of online activism.

The ICBL and transnational activism

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) is one of the earliest, most effective digital activism campaigns. (Source:

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines(ICBL) that I referred to in my previous post has used the internet as the dominant mode of communication since 1996. A seamless integration of online and offline action, this campaign also took online lobbying to the next level, interacting with governments and policymakers through e-mails. This was also one of the first campaigns to use the internet to move beyond geographic borders, coordinating smaller dedicated movements across countries to work for the common campaign goal. Not only did the internet facilitate better organization across countries, but it also helped enable the treaty’s quick adoption. In her 2001 paper, Activism, Hacktivism, and Cyberterrorism: The Internet as a Tool for Influencing Foreign Policy, Dorothy E. Denning details the ICBL facts mentioned here, also discussing the usage of encryption as a method to circumvent government intervention, even in the late 1990’s (See here).

Firsthand Accounts and real-time reporters

University of Pennsylvania Law School professor Seth F. Kreimer recounts his own experiences during the demonstrations in Philadelphia against the Republican National Convention, during the summer of 2000. While television stations had occasional coverage of the protests, Kreimer says his access to information was through a website established by theprotestersthat provided images and real-time reports of the confrontations between the protestors and police(See here).

He also prudently points out the potential of the web to establish “two-way linkages with potential sympathizers” – a fact that was overlooked by Gladwell when he made his argument against the tweeting of revolutions. With the advent of social media, the bidirectional potential has only increased from the days of e-mails, blogs and chat rooms. This is not to say that linkages (strong or weak) to exchange expertise, information or resources are sufficient to create impact, but they are certainly essential.

The Zapatistas movement was supported by the La Neta computer network. (Source:

Discussions of protest networks are not quite complete without the ubiquitous Zapatistas group. In their 2005 book Digital Formations: IT and New Architectures in the Global Realm, Robert Latham and Saskia Sassen refer to the La Neta computer network, a civil society network, as a significant player in globalizing the Zapatistas movement. This network helped bypass the state’s restrictions in Mexico, and Latham and Sassen rightly observe that a local movement made this network into a transnational information hub.

Contemporary relevance of flashbacks

Lessons learned from these cases are just as relevant and significant to current scenarios as they were earlier. Technology continues to advance and become more adaptable to contemporary challenges. While the Zapatistas had a La Neta, there are tools today (such as this) to protect photographers in the thick of on-field protest actions. A look back at digital activism of any decade is indicative of the consistent thread of adaptability that is synonymous with this field. There is not much we cannot circumvent, hacktivize or digitize. After all, innovation is the lifeblood of this genre of activists.


Digital Activism: A Look Back

Sometimes, the best way to move forward is to pause and take a look back. With the global debates about digital activism still raging, this post will highlight some of the scholarly works from the past few years that provide insights into the evolution of thought on digital activism. Studying these observations against the current backdrop will provide useful perspectives on the catalysts behind the change in tone of the dialogue surrounding this topic – moving from discussion and leaning more towards debate.


Internet was commercialized in the late 90's, and the Dotcom Boom had the world's attention right after

Dotcom Boom

As Trebor Scholz points out in Digital Activism Decoded, after the commercialization of the internet in the late 90’s, digital activism existed, but was not widely publicized. With the arrival of the dotcom hype, few others made headlines, possibly drawing attention away and allowing the discussion of the topic to be observations, instead of arguments. To put it simply, while hackers and activists were still active and embracing new tools, the audience was witnessing a different game at another arena.

Howard Rheingold in his book, The Virtual Community, speaks of grassroots activist David Hughes’ travels to towns, meetings with locals and how his pioneering efforts revealed the world of computers and internet to several townsfolk. As early as 1988, when interviewed by Rheingold, Hughes spoke of his online activism, bringing an online forum to let local vendors express their concerns [See here]. Such stories of new domains conquered and online pioneers are not new today, but the numbers have certainly grown. Although Hughes’ efforts might have been met with skepticism by some, they had no distinct individual forum on which to debate the subject’s legitimacy. While letting a pioneering trend take root was a blessing, the current environment is distinctly different. There are many aspiring to be someone like David Hughes and an equal number of critics. It is a healthy debate, for sure, but one that has only recently evolved into a fierce one.

Protests and internet broadcast channels

With the protests against the WTO in 1999, came the arrival of activist-run Internet broadcast channel, Indymedia. Started with the goal of challenging mainstream media stories, this was a great precursor to the fiery brand of citizen journalism we witness today. Oppressive government regimes and crackdowns on Internet and journalistic freedom were prevalent in the late 90’s and early 2000 as well, as outlined by Scholz [See here]. But, the amplifying power of retweets, likes, blog posts and other outlets used by the tech-savvy 21st century activists, and, more importantly, their supporters, have brought the field of digital activism into focus, for better or for worse.

Old thoughts, new changes

In his book, Who Is My Neighbor? : Social Affinity In A Modern World James A. Vela-McConnell says that the lack of a “human face” makes an e-mail more likely to be ignored and makes virtual activism less likely to be a substitute for actual activism, acknowledging its virtue as a supplement instead. This observation in his 1999 book, is one that is in line with what cyber-optimists and cyber-pessimists (in varying degrees), still acknowledge. While there was not much “noise” (read: lively debate) around this notion expressed then, it has become a full-blown verbal hurling match with no specific targets in the digital activism idea space today. What has changed, perhaps, is the nature of virtual activism, which Vela-McConnell stated as lacking critical exposure by being invisible to the media and public. In twelve short years, we are at the age of 24-hour news channels broadcasting Twitter feeds to support (or create) news stories.


Online activism complements offline action

Another instance of online activism is alluded to by Meredith Minkler in Community Organizing andCommunity Building for Health. A Public Electronic Network of Santa Monica, California is referred to as case of organizing online, pointing to local online networks addressing health concerns as the precursors to this breed of activism. Another early digital activism campaign was the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL).

Progress and more

Digital activism has shown tremendous progress, evolving from a local neighborhood network to spread messages of health or a conscious citizen spreading the word about technology to the age of social media and almost-everyone-has-a-voice-and-an-opinion. While I will continue to focus on more scholarly opinions and the evolution of thought on digital activism in future posts, the key takeaway from this discussion is the simultaneous transformation of the nature of discussion of the subject. The digital activism world, if considered as a sphere in itself, has become more public now – everyone has an opinion and everyone wants to share it, while few want to listen and still fewer want to make amends and consider moving forward. Despite its relevance being established, constructive thought is being muddled by whispers of the dangers of slacktivism and over-hyping the dictator-toppling potential of a particular medium.

The Shirky-Morozov era (yes, I generalize) is one of lively debate, thoughtful writers and, above all, concerned thinkers. Ten years from now, I hope to reminisce about the progress of digital activism thought instead of regretting the muddle of crowded debates that the decade past had been.


From Our Book: ARPANET and the Birth of Digital Activism

NOTE: On June 1st we’ll be posting a free downloadable copy of our new book Digital Activism Decoded and on July 1st the paper version will go on sale at For the next two months we’ll be posting brief excerpts from all the chapters in the book. To learn more, visit our book page.

Today’s excerpt, by Trebor Scholz of The New School, is from the first section on contexts and presents a history of digital activism from the beginning of the ARPANET in 1969.

….Many changes have occurred since the first nodes of ARPANET, the predecessor of the Internet, were linked together in 1969. At that time, computers were enormous, clunky, and prohibitively expensive—one purpose of ARPANET, which was one of the projects of the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, was to allow more scientists to work with these scarce. Instead of putting the networked computers to work on complex calculations, researchers turned ARPANET against the intentions of its creators by using it to communicate with one another. This was the single biggest unintended consequence of ARPANET.

ARPANET’s “network mail,” a precursor to today’s email, was not exclusively used to discuss research—it also helped distribute messages against the Vietnam War, hosted discussions about the Watergate scandal, and ultimately the resignation of Pres. Richard Nixon.

At the same time, however, ARPANET also became a tool that helped the Pentagon shadow political activists. The American public became aware of ARPANET in the early 1970s—two years after it was activated. National media alerted them to the role of this research network in government surveillance. During the political unrest of the late 1960s, military intelligence had started to collect information about the location of firehouses and police precincts in dozens of American cities. One Pentagon official decided to add local troublemakers to this map. After the story broke in 1972, the Pentagon was ordered by a judge to destroy all related files. As was later revealed, however, the Pentagon used ARPANET to move these files to a new location in direct violation of the court order.

Since its inception, the Internet has helped to both control and empower citizens. At the outset, ARPANET provided a communication forum for male, Caucasian, middle-class scientists with a Department of Defense contract. The ARPANET was not the only networking solution available at the time, however. Several alternative and more open communication systems were on hand. Usenet, for example, was nicknamed “the people’s ARPANET,” because it offered easy access to networked communication for anyone with a dial-up connection.

In 1991, ARPANET became more available to the public when it was taken over by the National Science Foundation. Military restrictions no longer applied, thus allowing ARPANET to expand beyond the defense community. Foreign networks could also join, with Japan among the first. In 1987, the first Chinese connection was established and tested by sending an email from the Technical University in Beijing to the University Karlsruhe in Germany. Throughout Europe, the number of Internet sites skyrocketed in the early 1990s.

But military declassification was not enough. For broader reach, the network also needed a commonly agreed upon language, a set of protocols that computers worldwide could use to communicate with one another. Accordingly, many governments and countless organizations, globally, had to agree to use one specific language, one protocol suite. TCP/IP became the agreed-upon language that defined how information on the Internet transferred from computer to computer across national borders.

From the early 1990s on, people in their living rooms, basements, libraries, and schools not only started to use the Internet in large numbers, they also co-shaped it. Roughly two decades were needed for the circle of network users to achieve substantial international reach.

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