Newest Tool for Social Protest: The Internet Crashing Web Sites, Known as 'Hactivism,' Gains Popularity, Angers

Article excerpt

When the industrial powers and Russia start their annual summit in Cologne, Germany, today, protesters will ride bikes in London, perform street theater in Chile, and manipulate a giant puppet in San Francisco.

Pretty much the usual stuff when the G-8 gathers. But on the fringes of this worldwide protest against the forces of "corporate globalization" is something new.

It's the fledgling field of "hactivism," which blends Internet technology with the social protest producing new tools and methods that are not only annoying their targets - usually government and institutional Web sites - but also the ranks of traditional activists. Ricardo Dominguez is a leading proponent of hactivism and his New York-based Electronic Disturbance Theater plans to conduct what he calls a "virtual sit-in" today at the same as the global protests against the G-8. Mr. Dominguez's target is the Mexican government and its treatment of the people of Chiapas. Those who want to join the sit-in are encouraged to download free software that allows computers to repeatedly call up a Mexican government Web site, thus overloading its server and impairing its ability to function. In addition, the theater's "electronic civil disobedience" will include a function so participants can ask the government Web site to do a search for "truth," presumably to tie it up further and make the symbolic point that the government is lying about the Zapatistas. "Our intent is disturbance. We want to slow {the Web site} down and make them aware that there is a large community worldwide that knows what they're doing," says Dominguez. Hactivists are a different breed from pure hackers, who invade computer systems usually out of mischief or to demonstrate vulnerabilities. But as the tools of hackers become more widely available, people with political objectives are increasingly using them and the Internet to attack their enemies. The backdrop to this activism is an exploding use of the Internet by social movements. Because it can reach more people, more rapidly and less expensively than other forms of communication, the Internet is revolutionizing the way activists organize campaigns. But hactivists like Dominguez are continually searching for more potent uses of today's technology to make a statement. He's an actor and artist and sees his form of electronic civil disobedience as akin to traditional uses of street theater to call attention to social problems. However, many social activists are either ambivalent or downright hostile toward this new form of protest. "I think it's idiotic," says Ted Lewis, director of the Mexico program at the Global Exchange, a social-justice group based in San Francisco. …