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