Revolution in cyberspace

Cyberactivism is a cheap and effective way of spreading a cause

When a small town in Japan was considering whether to have a nuclear facility or not, just 75 protest emails led the mayor to decide the issue through a public referendum. That’s an example of the power of cyberactivism. More and more people are realizing the benefits of using the Internet for activism. The benefits are many. It’s cheap. It’s immediate. It’s global. And it’s a way by which a small group of people can reach out to large numbers all across the globe. Called “digital organizing”, cyberactivism uses websites and emails to drive home a cause.

How it all began

The ELZN, or more popularly the Zapatista movement, was probably one of the first practitioners of cyberactivism. In 1994, ELZN declared that it was at war with the Mexican government over its dictatorial policies. After capturing some municipalities in a city with the use of violence, the movement switched to a battle in the virtual world. A mass of emails were sent out with details of the capture and the government found no way of suppressing information regarding the uprising thereafter. The Zapatista movement quit the use of violence and used the Internet medium to spread their cause. The hostilities lasted only for a few months. After that the ELZN created the Electronic Disturbance Theater, which remained very active on the Web.

Greenpeace: Taking it to the next level

However, it was Greenpeace which took this form of activism to higher and higher levels and they have many successful campaigns under their belt. That includes one out of India too. While the Bhopal gas disaster happened in 1984, the after-effects in the form the closed Union Carbide factory decaying and contaminating the groundwater stay on even today. In 1999, Greenpeace helped set up a cybercafe right in front of the factory and thousands of Bhopal citizens came and sent protest emails to both the erring company and various governments. Previously most of them had no way of addressing their grievances. Dow Chemicals (which is Union Carbide today) decided to skirt the issue and started screening out such emails. However, the issue subsequently got great media attention and soon everyone came to know about the whole issue. Later cyberactivism campaigns were much more successful and in one of them, the World Bank decided to stop funding polluting factories in Gujarat. Greenpeace has tasted much greater success in Europe and have successfully fought many campaigns on the Web.

Post 9/11 concerns

However, cyberactivism is a form of civil disobedience and is totally frowned upon by most authorities. Especially after 9/11 when security in cyberspace came under the scanner and any form of hacking or online activism was not considered the right thing. For some, the line between cyberactivism and cyber-terrorism blurred a bit. However most cyberactivists point out that there is no violence done by this movement and most of the activities fall in the ambit of cyber laws.

While right now computer penetration, especially in places like India, is limited, the future could see cyberactivism as the preferred choice for most groups across the world.

Cyber Activities

Cyberterrorism: Terrorism spread through computer networks and the Internet.
Hactivism: Hacking for a political cause.
Crypto-anarchism: Belief that all computer and Internet users should be anonymous. Will be achieved through the use of strong public key cryptography that will give a high degree of privacy to everyone.
Internet Activism: Associated with citizen movements while cyberactivism is used with civil disobedience.

(This article appeared in Living Digital magazine in August 2005)

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