High-Tech Levels Protest Field; Messaging, Cell Phones Guide Neo-Activists

Article excerpt

Byline: Steve Miller, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The earnestly unscrubbed protester of days past surely would not recognize his cell-phone toting, digitally aware counterpart today.

The activist arsenal now includes balloons outfitted with tiny cameras that, when floated over the protesting masses, can take a shot of the crowd, download the image to a software program and provide a head count.

Global-positioning satellites can tell parading demonstrators where the police are, so marchers can avoid the traps that officers set in order to contain protest.

And 261 protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Boston were signed on to a free text-messaging service via their cell phones that told them where and when to gather.

Demonstrators are preparing to use the technology for their protests and rallies during the Republican National Convention when it convenes later this month in New York. Authorities expect about 100,000 demonstrators to parade the streets during the four-day event.

"This is a new arms race," said Howard Rheingold, author of "Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. "The police have always had the power in these situations, with two-way radios and more advanced communications to control demonstrators and to fight terrorists," Mr. Rheingold said. "But their technology is no longer exclusive."

In the past four years, the burgeoning availability of two-way pagers, Blackberry e-mailers and wireless laptops have made the world an easier place in which to communicate.

At the same time, these developments are helping street protesters organize and act worldwide.

A text-messaging campaign in the Philippines fueled the protests against President Joseph Estrada in 2001 that resulted in his removal. In March, activists in Spain turned to text-messaging and e-mail groups to organize gatherings before elections, despite a moratorium on demonstrations in the 24 hours preceding the balloting.

"The two parts of technology that lower the threshold for activism and technology is the Internet and the mobile phone," Mr. …