WEEKLY WEB WATCH: How protesters in Seattle used Internet to outmaneuver WTO

The World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle will be remembered not only for tear gas and riot police. It will also come to be seen as a watershed in the use of the Internet to support independent, dissident points of view and coverage of a major political event.

The World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle will be remembered not only for tear gas and riot police. It will also come to be seen as a watershed in the use of the Internet to support independent, dissident points of view and coverage of a major political event.

The World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle will be remembered

not only for tear gas and riot police. It will also come to be seen as a

watershed in the use of the Internet to support independent, dissident

points of view and coverage of a major political event.



Even five years ago, people would have turned to the likes of CNN to

find out what was really going on. This time around, CNN and other major

news networks may well have had the dramatic pictures. But anyone

depending on them alone for information could be forgiven for thinking

the protesters were merely a bunch of attention-seeking anarchists,

radical environmentalists and retired hippies with no coherent political

agenda or message. There were a fair number of those, but to find out

why around 40,000 people took to the streets of Seattle, there are

dozens of web sites and Internet mailing lists you could turn to.



The Seattle protest sites are best exemplified, in very different ways,

by the Independent Media Center (www.indymedia.org) and a spoof

look-alike (www.gatt.org) of the official WTO site (www.wto.org). Dozens

of journalists not affiliated to mainstream media contributed to the

Independent Media Center, which collated news about anti-WTO activities,

published it on the Web and made audio and video footage available to

other media.



Using volunteers and donated equipment and services, the Center

represents a marked step forward in the sophistication and co-ordination

of activists’ use of the Net.



The look-alike of the official WTO site is exactly the sort of online

guerrilla action for which the anti-corporate group RTMark

(www.rtmark.com) has become well known. It uses the same design,

typography and graphics as the official site to give a very alternative

take on trade globalization.



Where the official site uses the WTO Seattle ’99 logo to point to the

site it created especially for the conference, RTMark’s site uses the

same logo to take web users to a protest site (www.seattlewto.org). Next

to a photograph of WTO director general Mike Moore, the spoof site says:

’The WTO’s purpose is to broaden and enforce global free trade. Global

free trade already gives multinational corporations vast powers to

enforce their will against democratic governments. Foreign policy and

even human rights considerations are not allowed to enter purchasing

decisions, and if a country is found to have chosen one product over

another for humanitarian or political reasons, that country is subject

to huge fines and embargoes.’



None of the techniques used by either the Independent Media Center or

RTMark are particularly new. But the Seattle conference is the highest

profile event they have so far been deployed around. You might not be

convinced by the arguments, but at least you’d get a better sense of

what people were so angry about than you would have gotten from the TV

news.



As far as the protesters are concerned, that is a great leap

forward.



Just a few years ago, they would have had to depend almost entirely on

the mainstream media to get their point across. There is little doubt

that this time around tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people

ended up better informed than they would have been. But no matter how

much the activists despise the mainstream media, which they identify

with the same corporate interests they want to bring down, they still

depend on it to get people’s attention in the first place. And it

wouldn’t have become front-page news had the riot police not been out on

the streets of Seattle.



The Internet has some way to go yet before it replaces people who are

prepared to stand in front of the batons and tear gas.



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