WWW: Global Defender or Demon?

by Allan Hunt Badiner

Let's cut to the chase: the Internet is a tool used by the forces of economic globalization to concentrate power and wealth in an international corporate elite. However, it's equally self-evident that the net is not owned by anyone. It can be, must be, and is also an instrument for the people, serving to network communities that treasure freedom, socioeconomic justice, ecological diversity, and peace.

We are experiencing a revolutionary period in communication. Anyone with access to a personal computer and a telephone line can in turn access over 10 million servers on the Internet. And that is just the beginning. The numbers of interconnected servers and the people who wish to use them is growing more than 100% over the past 10 years, and it's predicted to grow more than 700% by the year 2001. MCI currently estimates that Internet traffic is growing at about 30% a month. If activists for social and ecological progress ignore a communications technology being adopted by some 30,000 new people a month, who is the loser?

Business has embraced the web and the amount of money being invested in the electronic marketplace is dizzying. But this does not mean that corporations are taking over the web anymore than they took over the telephone. It may be that the web makes it easier for corporations to be more responsible and accountable for their content. Commerce on the web involves no telemarketing, no postage, no paper, and holds significant potential to evolve into more responsive and responsible two-way communication. While the web is not growing exactly like the way the East Coast media machine first envisioned it, there is undoubtedly underway within it a convergence of telecommunications, information technology, publishing, broadcasting, and personal communication. Activists would be well-served by following the example of campaigners on the IGC (U.S), APC (Africa, Australia, Asia, Europe, Latin and North America), and Envirolink networks, as well as the corporate lead, adopting intranets (private internets) for organizing within the ranks, and extranets (networks of intranets).

I hold a vision of large numbers of people making the link between strategic consuming and social/political power. Green minded companies will find it in their interest to help underwrite activism on the web. Imagine a cultural, philosophical and commercial storefront on the web within which people can go for interaction within a community of like minds, and simultaneously align their purchasing power with their social values. A vote at the ballot box is not without consequence, but a vote at the electronic supermarket may be heard better. If indeed it is true that corporations have risen to the power level of governments or higher, than surely one must consider one's purchases as political votes as well.

Understandably, corporations want their computers to know everything about you and some reduction in absolute privacy is the mutual cost of being an engaged player on the web. The rules of the game are different here: activists and corporations visit each other's sites, get to know each other without distraction, and leave a public record. Annual reports of major corporations are now online for all to see.

Sites like Corpwatch, Adbusters, and Descendents of Founders of Multinationals will rock corporate web hard. Being shamed in public, according to business critic Paul Hawken, has become the worst corporate nightmare. No more uncontested shovelware like annual reports dripping with the worst greenwashing seen in any medium... no more net searches on a corporation that show only pages with self-serving PR. The World Wide Web is a well-suited arena for an all-out campaign to bring corporations into the social-ecological loop and seat them at the conference table we must all sit at in order to renew our lease with Mother Nature.

It's useful to remember that personal computers were created as a revolutionary act by young people with no big financial backing, and the net has been a pre-commercial environment for decades. As Stuart Brand points out, it is a gift economy based more on sharing rather than exchange. It is an opportunity to build community, attract users, develop partnerships, and apply new processes and principles. The web grew up, along with the latest generation, with less exposure to the psychological games that 'impact' a TV bred audience, and although segments of the Web are quickly turning television-like with sound and moving images, the manipulative techniques of TV ads are still not efficiently delivered to a mass audience on the web. Remaining in place is an earlier and still seductive, growing web culture (remember the blue ribbons and black pages?) that ultimately rises up to deride or "flame" what is offensive to liberty and speak truth to corporate power while the whole world watches.

The web has emerged as the major source of alternative media as well as an online college for keyboard activism. One has only to check the sites of Interactivism and fax protests right off the webpage about a host of social and ecological issues, or WebActive and monitor new developments in computer activism, or others who are betting their profitability on activism to grow and become a powerful sphere of public life. NGO's around the world are building databases, attracting members, developing outside often starting with a simple exchange of and breaking new ground in efficient global networking.

The web media has embraced the idea that citizen engagement will grow with the web. In a recent Wired magazine story, David S. Bennahum writes about the night of 17 November 1996, hours after Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic annulled democratic elections in Belgrade. Messages began to appear in a relatively tiny electronic bulletin board service in Serbia calling for mass demonstrations. Two days later, aided by the board's influence, 20,000 people marched to uphold the elections. That same day, students at the Belgrade University put up a Web site to spread the word and alert the international media to what was happening.

In his digital column Tomorrow, Howard Rheingold suggests that Rainforest Action Network's David and Goliath-like face off on the web with Mitsubishi Corporation was a real test of the claims made by electronic democracy enthusiasts. RAN took issue with the environmental hype on the Mitsubishi site and offered line by line refutations and counter evidence to their claims. (see www.well.com/user/hlr/tomorrow/mitsubishi.html)

RAN's site also generated over 400 faxes a week to Mitsubishi Corporation complaining about their forest practices. Hotwired praises NGOs like RAN and Greenpeace and others for providing easy tools for taking online action. (see www.netizen.com/netizen/96/13/index2a.html)

With many NGO's reporting vastly greater outreach and ability to draw support from around the world, it should be no surprise that at the recent Summit of the Americas on Sustainable Development the final document signed by 34 nations declared:

Telecommunications is a crucial tool for fostering sustainable
development, particularly through information-sharing networks.

Kirkpatrick Sale, Jerry Mander and other writers make some articulate and well-reasoned criticisms of computer mediated life... and they rightly point out that the computer has made possible the management of business on a global scale and the sloshing of capital from one continent to another often hurting local communities in the process. But it may be those very same tools along with traditional community organizing that makes possible effective resistance to the destructive effects of economic globalization. They are mistaken when they see the web just as an instrument of centrally controlled corporate influence... if it is anything, it is a force for decentralization and offers real potential for the building of an alternative economy. And if the neo-Luddite movement is serious about trying to make a war on computers like their namesake did on the knitting frames in the 18th century, I'm afraid they may be "hissing in the wind." The energy wasted trying to combat microprocessors is better spent using these technologies to forward progressive social and ecological agendas.

Given the speed and saturation with which the world is wiring itself, I think the kind of life we want our children to have is dependent on multiple combinations of NGOs and corporate entities coming together to form socially purposed networks, like huge chunks of cortex in the global brain. We can't wait, and nor can the Earth, for all of us to fly around the world and meet at conferences before we start working together for our mutual interests.

Nothing could be more helpful to the agenda of greedy multinationals than if people who share an ecological perspective of life shun the tools of digital communication, and don't show up in the global dialogue about effective and appropriate use of this technology. While we allow ourselves to be empowered by computers, we should maintain an ongoing critique around the role they play in our lives, and set clear rules of engagement.

The web is definitely leveling the playing field... but you have to choose to play.



*in 1997 the above article appeared in The Future of the Internet section of