Global trade advocates hope that the new information technologies (ITs) will deliver immense benefits, especially for those who control these technologies. But as potent as they may be as profit-seeking tools, information technologies are (at least for the time being) equally effective as tools of political subversion. John Markoff, a historical sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh, makes the same point in reverse: “Just as literacy was as much an instrument of bureaucratic power as of social movement challenge, the new electronic technology seem[s] as likely to expand the toolkits of the powerful as to undermine them.” Few activists in recent protests would deny the importance of ITs to their work. Over the last decade especially, ITs have dramatically transformed possibilities for political organization and action in an increasingly global polity. But innovations in the subversive use of ITs bring strong responses from political and corporate elites seeking to control and exploit the commercial potential of these technologies.
“Our Resistance is as Transnational as Capital!” proclaimed a banner at protest headquarters in Prague during the September 2000 meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The multilingual assemblage of leaflet-bearing visitors and the computer terminals, cell phone-recharge outlets, and Internet hook-ups provided by the Initiative Against Economic Globalization (INPEG) helped substantiate this claim. In the weeks surrounding the September 26 (or “S26”) protest against the world’s financial institutions, Prague’s ubiquitous Internet cafés hummed with activity as activists reported to their networks back home; sought updates on happenings in other parts of the movement, the city, and the world; or uploaded video and audio reports to activist Web sites. When police closed the main protester “Convergence Center” and banned public meetings, the Internet cafés proved beyond police control. The cafés facilitated efforts to mobilize large demonstrations to celebrate the early close of the World Bank/IMF meetings and demand humane treatment for imprisoned protesters.
The powerful use of ITs to disrupt the neoliberal economic agenda was first demonstrated by the 1998 campaign against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). The MAI was developed in secret negotiations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), where the absence of third world voices would help ensure that the treaty passed without substantial revisions. The MAI’s purpose was to limit governments’ ability to regulate foreign investment within their borders; activists labeled it a bill of rights for corporate investors. When the MAI negotiating text was leaked to movement leaders, they posted it on the Internet, quickly generating opposition from activists around the world. Within days of the first public scrutiny, the MAI—at least in its original form—...
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