Activists Without Borders

The Net is changing the rules of power politics

As a military threat, the Zapatista National Liberation Army has never really amounted to much. Within a week after launching an uprising on New Year's Day in 1994, the Mayan Indian guerrillas agreed to a cease-fire. They have been holed up in the mountainous jungles of southern Mexico ever since.

But in cyberspace, the Zapatistas are more effective than ever. On dozens of Web sites set up by supporters around the world, rebel leader Subcommandante Marcos can still be seen in his ski mask, puffing a pipe, pressing his demands that Mexico City honor its 1996 promise to give indigenous peoples in the state of Chiapas self-rule. Using the Internet, the Zapatistas have gotten foreign sympathizers to picket Mexican consulates, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations, and helped spearhead huge conventions of grassroots groups from Latin America, Europe, and North America who oppose free-market reforms.

It's an avenue that activists of all stripes are fast discovering. By mastering the weaponry of the Web, everyone from clandestine Beijing dissidents to high-powered Washington lobbyists are finding that the Internet is an extraordinary tool for mobilizing support, raising money, and exerting influence. In the Internet Age, it's possible for a handful of Web-savvy activists to exert pressure on policymakers working out of their homes. The result may be a fundamental transformation of the nature of politics.

In the 20th century, the game of power typically entailed moneyed special-interest groups who plied the corridors of Capitol Hill, cultivated Japanese bureaucrats with lavish entertaining, or mobilized rallies in Germany. But the Net has ushered in a new social phenomenon: virtual organizations. These are unstructured ad hoc clusters of people who perhaps never met. The only thing they share is a common passion--a concern for environmental issues, an ethnic identity, or simply a sense of struggle. But they can be rapidly mobilized for political action. "It's a completely new power structure," says Democratic consultant Jennifer Laszlo. "The new people with power are those with credibility and an e-mail list. You have no idea who they are, where they are, what color they are. It takes away a lot of power from oligarchies."

OUTCRY. Almost out of the ether, virtual organizations materialize to put global pressure on the owner of a Nicaraguan factory who is locked in a dispute with his workers. Or they arouse a nationwide outcry to force lawmakers to investigate the FBI assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Tex., or to kill controversial legislation.

Just because cyberactivism is practically invisible doesn't mean it can't generate swift and unexpected shifts. Indonesian President Suharto found this out last May, when student pro-democracy leaders who were linked by the Web mounted mass protests that eroded his authority and sped his ouster. Beijing found out last April, when 10,000 members of the secretive Falun Gong religious sect suddenly showed up for a protest outside the government leadership compound. Residents of many U.S. cities have been alarmed by neo-Nazi groups who, with little notice, have staged rallies and rock concerts organized over the Web.

As technologies advance and Net use spreads, the impact will be profound. To Web-wise pols ranging from Democratic Presidential candidate Bill Bradley to the religious right, the development poses new possibilities for fund-raising. But for rulers seeking to maintain social order or political control, it can be as threatening as a tornado sweeping down from an Oklahoma sky.

Not surprisingly, leaders from Washington to Beijing to Riyadh are struggling with ways to limit the tools that have empowered cyberactivists. The central issues: Should governments be able to block individuals' access to materials deemed inappropriate, such as hate sites posted by racist groups? Should Web users be barred from using advanced encryption software that makes it difficult for governments to eavesdrop on digital communications?

Advocates of Web restrictions are well intentioned. But these limits cut in many directions. U.S. law enforcement agencies want to curb cryptography software, for example, because otherwise they may be unable to penetrate terrorist or narcotics rings. But the lack of encryption makes it easier for police states to round up political opponents who communicate over the Web.

Another example: software that blocks access to sites that parents think are inappropriate for children, such as those that are pornographic or violent. But authoritarian governments could use mandatory filters to censor the Net. That's why groups from the American Civil Liberties Union to the conservative Free Congress Foundation think Big Brother should butt out.

OFFSHORE SERVERS. So far, cyberactivists have found ways around every hurdle governments have put up. Take China. While police have hunted down and jailed dissident Webmasters, new sites proliferate. With threats to revoke licenses of Internet service providers operating in China, Beijing has gotten the industry to self-censor by blocking sites with content that departs from the party line. But skilled surfers can gain access to anything they want by tapping into offshore servers and dissident sites.

Governments also can ban the import of encryption software strong enough to confound the supercomputers that the state uses to monitor electronic traffic. But such software is easy to smuggle in--and can be downloaded from some foreign sites. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch even offer training to nongovernmental organizations on how to use such encryption programs as Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), even though Washington until recently banned their export. "Once programs like PGP get into the mass market, traffic will be much more difficult to crack," says Human Rights Watch's Internet expert Jagdish Parikh. Eventually, he predicts, upgrading computer surveillance systems will become too costly for most governments.

The war in Kosovo revealed just how difficult the Web has made it to stifle dissent. After the Serbian army invaded in March, it stormed the offices of Koha Ditore, the leading Kosovar nationalist newspaper. But soon, the paper was back in operation--on a Web site run from Macedonia.

OUTAGES. The same thing happened when the government seized the Belgrade studio of B92, a Serbian dissident radio station, as well as computer gear used for the station's Internet service. Within a month, the station was reconfigured as, hosted by xS4all, an ISP in Amsterdam that helps alternative media. Correspondents dispatched audio clips and text articles on the war over the Net--a job made more difficult when NATO bombs knocked out electricity. Now that security has relaxed, Free B92--run by the original B92 staff--offers news, music, and cultural interviews from the 440-square-foot Belgrade apartment of designer Sinisa Rogic. With money raised through rock concerts and rallies, the staff plans to launch a service to send hourly news to subscribers. "Without the Internet, we would not even be in this country anymore," says Rogic.

As Malaysia is discovering, curbing dissent is especially hard once a nation's middle class embraces computers. After a 1998 feud over how to deal with the country's financial crisis, Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir fired his reformist deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, and jailed him on disputed corruption and sodomy charges. Since then, the government has clamped down on the press. Street demonstrations of the pro-Anwar reformasi--reform--movement have become rare. But thanks to the Net, which has 1.2 million users in Malaysia, "reformasi has moved out of the streets and into the homes," says a former Anwar aide.

Authorities have rounded up several suspected dissident Webmasters. But Malaysians still can visit some 80 pro-Anwar sites, operated in the U.S. and Britain. "What is making the difference is that ordinary people are now coming to this medium," says Parikh of Human Rights Watch. And Mahathir can't crack down too much, because his government has made development of Internet commerce a cornerstone of its industrial policy.

In the more freewheeling West, the Web is revolutionizing democracy itself. And nowhere is the technology and art of cyberactivism more developed than in the U.S. Three years ago, Republican Presidential candidate Bob Dole tried--with little success--to get voters to check out his Web site. Today, 45% of likely Republican primary voters with a computer say the Internet is "the place they go for information" about politics, according to Steve Forbes's campaign manager, Bill Dal Col. Predicts Internet political consultant Phil Noble: "In time, the whole political communications process will be based on the Web."

INSTANT CLIPS. Forbes and Bradley have developed the most sophisticated Web campaigns. Both candidates count tech directors in their inner circle of advisers. Dal Col exchanges e-mail 10 times daily with Forbes's Web guru Richard A. Segal Jr. in Cincinnati. On the hustings, staff tote digital cameras and satellite transmission equipment so Forbes can feed his site with a constant flow of video clips, online chats, and 90-second commentaries for radio stations. And his campaign has organized volunteers--30,000 of whom signed up online without being recruited--into "cyberelection districts." Instead of turning out voters in their geographical areas, these volunteers design their own district--friends, hobbyists, or ideological soulmates--from anywhere.

Meanwhile, Bradley's site offers "community involvement kits" for volunteers. These manuals show boosters how to organize their neighborhoods, raise money, write impassioned letters to the editors of local newspapers, monitor local talk radio shows, and even download voter registration forms. Until this year, the Web wasn't used for presidential fund-raising in the U.S. because credit-card transactions weren't eligible for federal matching funds. But after Bradley challenged the rule, the Federal Election Commission reversed the policy this year. So far, Bradley has raised $607,000 from 3,700 donors on the Web.

Since it is so cheap and widespread, the Web is valuable for special interest groups that need to make their money go a long way. Using the old media of telephones, faxes, and mail, it used to require months and scads of money to get a few thousand people to write letters to Congress. Using the Net, groups can generate hundreds of thousands of messages within weeks. A few clicks on a mouse enable viewers to dash off personalized faxes--to urge Washington lawmakers to vote against gay rights or to urge a local school board to stop teaching evolution.

Just ask Pam Fielding, co-founder of cyberlobby firm e-advocates. She helped lead a National Education Assn. drive to save a federal requirement that Internet service providers give schools a discount rate after congressional Republicans moved to end it. Lawmakers and the Federal Communications Commission were soon swamped with 22,000 messages. "Every message was a personal e-mail from a mom, a dad, a businessperson, a teacher, or a school administrator," says Fielding. "I was convinced at that moment that the Internet was the future of democracy." A similar blitz by civil-liberties groups persuaded the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to shelve an effort to loosen its customer privacy rules. The agency received 205,000 e-mail messages protesting the changes--compared with fewer than 100 in favor.

Because lobbying groups aren't as prevalent in democracies outside the U.S., the Web hasn't yet emerged as a key weapon. Britain's Labor Party has a home page, for example, but "it was only during the last election that the telephone became more important in the U.K. than knocking on doors," says a party spokesman. And in Japan, where the government strictly regulates campaign activity--down to the size of portraits on a poster--candidates can't post new items on their Web pages once campaign season officially begins.

CYBERVOTERS. The Net is making inroads. Japanese legislator Yukio Edano is a leading shinjinrui, or new-generation politician. An activist lawyer elected to the Diet in 1993 and now a member of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, Edano, 35, logs on oFten and carries a handheld PC in his briefcase. He uses his home page to explain his positions on pending bills--once unheard-of in Japan, where legislators have long brokered votes in secret. His online chats attract only a few dozen voters. But Edano figures it's a start. "Japan's silent majority will finally be able to make its opinion known," he says.

As Edano searches for cybervoters in Japan, special interest groups using the Web have found audiences far beyond national borders. Because the medium is truly globaL, their pleas are "generating very tightly knit communities that are not geographically continguous," observes Juan Enriquez, a Harvard University expert on Latin America.

Labor and environmental groups have been especially adept at expanding local disputes into global causes. Greenpeace has an e-mail list of 5,000 activists who join protests over everything from polyvinyl chloride in Japanese toys to plutonium shipments in Britain. Labor disputes in maquiladora assembly plants along the U.S.-Mexico border now routinely elicit e-mail campaigns targeting multinationals and government agencies run by such groups as the Campaign for Labor Rights in Washington and San Francisco's Transnational Resources & Action Center (TRAC). "We're in the process of building grassroots globalization," says TRAC Director Joshua Karliner.

When these grassroots movements jell into challenges, governments often tremble. They can seize computers or cut Web access, as when Beijing temporarily shut e-mail service at domestic Internet service companies in a clampdown on Falun Gong. But such extreme measures also come at a rising commercial cost. As more local companies and foreign investors come to depend on e-commerce, interference in their networks can cause serious economic disruption.

The commercial risks of messing with the Web is one reason Singapore's censors have all but given up the fight. Singapore, which has long controlled the local media, has also invested billions in Internet infrastructure to become an "intelligent island." Print and broadcast are still restricted. But except for banning about 100 porno sites, the government vows that the Net will stay free. "Singapore has absolutely no choice but to become a global city or its economy will decline," says National Computer Board CEO Michael Yap.

As political leaders the world over come to the same realization, their challenge will be to turn the unwieldy new medium to their advantage. That will mean opening closed governments to an online public and competing in the marketplace of ideas--rather than trying to monopolize it. Ultimately, the Net's impact on politics may well be as diverse as the world's cultures.