Guess you haven't heard a lot about Netactivism in the Netherlands, so I'm going to tell you some tales from the Lowlands:
Whoever hears about the Dutch practises and the British experience, will hopefully get inspired - it certainly made me think about the meaning of Netactivism.
First, let me tell you about a recent coup on Internet. It takes some dwelling upon the Dutch situation, but once you get to grips with it, you'll love the story!
Let me introduce the players to you. First there is the agency I work for, called bureau Jansen & Janssen, which stands for Thomson & Thomsonn, the two stumbling detectives featured in the Tintin comics. Jansen & Janssen is a spin off from the strong squatter movement of Amsterdam in the eighties.
Activists had to deal with the police and secret services a lot, and the bureau started collecting stragegies and contra- expertise. Jansen & Janssen started in 1985 and soon grew into an archive on police tactics with particular interest in analysing how the force deals with critical powers that be. We published our research on how the secret service tried to infiltrate the activist movement, and on how they blackmailed asylumseekers to work for them.
Jansen & Janssen kept up with the changes of times and in 1994 revealed how private detectives collect information about lobby groups and sell it to the multinationals involved. Other areas which we have been interested in for many years are the change in police tactics in fighting organized crime, the influence of foreign agencies on seizing drugs traffic and the shift towards more intelligence gathering, by the police. But on this subject, we were too early. (Or haunted by our radical roots, which we never cut off and never will.) People took us serious, but to a certain extent. With some stories, we just did not get access to the media.
This was the situation up until some two years ago when a public prosecuter in Amsterdam found out that a special squad team, the Interregional Research Team (IRT), was de facto exploiting a drug trafficking line. The police worked with an informant who was allowed to grow into someone really important in order to infiltrate a big gang. The police looked the other way when containers full of soft drugs arrived from abroad. In the end, the police were involved in organizing import and export of all kind of drugs, including Ecstacy (XTC) and cocaine. The public prosecuter ordered this very special criminal investigation method to stop. Immediately. If only he had known what he had started on that day in December 1993....Fights between departments, between commissionairies, between cities, between the police and the Public Prosecutor. Officials refused to talk to each other, policemen involved claimed their lives were in danger - and that of their informants' were too.
The first official investigation into this didn't really elucidate what was going on, not only because a certain part of the final report remained secret. Nevertheless the crisis was taken seriously, the Minister of Internal Affairs and the Minister of Justice both resigned. Because further investigation seemed necessairy, an official parliamentairy inquiry commission was set up: the Van Traa commission. This is our second player. The Van Traa commission (named after their chairman) was staffed with specialists from universities and the field. They interviewed a lot of people involved, and the public part of the hearings were broadcast live on television in October 1995.
People were shocked to hear about what was going on, and how little the higher reaches had known about it. It seemed as though nobody would take responsibility for what had happened. The police had been told to fight organized crime, and to go out and get some big guys - and that's what they had been doing. The use of undogmatic investigation methods was not really illegal. They reasoned that because they were not mentioned in the law, the methods were not forbidden.
The results of the Commission Van Traa were published in 13 volumes (more than 5000 pages) and sold together in a box, for 695,- guilders. A cd-rom with the same information (accessed using an impressive search engine and hyperlinked keywords and notes) was available for another f 650,- As the paper-version had no index whatsoever, people where in fact forced to buy the package deal for over 1000,- guilders. The publishers were the SDU - the former State Publishing House who were recently privatised. They are the third player in our game.
The price of the report caused much controversy as these documents are in fact Hansards of Parliament, which should be freely available to the public. After a plea on the opinion page of our most serious daily paper, NRC Handelsblad (bit like the Times), to put the Van Traa report on Internet, we decided it was time to act. We took the challenge and within a week, the job was done. Some Perl-specialists hacked the cd-rom and managed to free the stripped texts from the processed version. The only thing we lost were the hyperlinks and the notes (a bloody shame!). But this was the only way to do it if we were to avoid legal problems. The Hansards of Parliament are free of copyright - the Law makes an exception for the sake of democracy. The SDU has claims on the edition work they do, but not on the texts as such. We saw the hole and jumped right in to it! The stripped texts were turned into html-pages, divided into neat paragraphs made accessible by a search engine, and that was that.
'Monopoly of the SDU broken, Van Traa report on Internet.' We made headlines on the frontpage of the same, very serious newspaper. The managing director of the SDU admitted he had to congratulate us with the job. The Secretairy of State for Home Affairs wrote a letter to the paper which indicated he should have wanted to do the same, but that he was too late. He stressed the importance of accessibility of government information, and anounced a pilot project of using teletext on the local cable - because the masses don't have computers- for this (imagine, 5000 pages, each divided up in 4 quarters, to be handled with remote control).
The postings in the guestbook on the Jansen & Janssen homepage were overwelmingly enthousiastic. In fact, they ade us feel a bit shy and humble. 'Fantastic', 'Just Great!', 'This is what Internet was meant for' 'Historical Action' 'Long live disclosure' 'Well Done' 'Internet Optima Forma' 'Important Contribution to Democracy' Who would have thought buro Jansen & Janssen would be praised for helping Dutch Society!?! The funny side was that, within a week, we had gone completely mainstream - accepted by Parliament and known in every far out corner of the country. It was a strange experience. Sure the timing was right. We interfered in a discussion we had only heard of vaguely, but we happened to pull the right string at the right time. The monopoly of the SDU was a thorn in the flesh of many people at all kind of levels. This tiny push was just the thing needed. Two weeks after the launch of our Van Traa homepage, the SDU announced they would put all Hansards of Parliament on line, starting the first of May. For free. (but as a GIF-picture, without search possiblities..)
But the story does not end there. One month later, the Rijksrecherche, (a kind of Internal Affairs - the police of the police) finished their research into the affairs of the criminal investigation department where the two drugdealing officers worked. Internal Affairs Reports usually are secret. But because the results where handed out to the Parliament, the status changed. Politicians were under great pressure to disclose this report, and within a week they had to give in. But 'made public' didn't mean open to everybody yet. The report - 500 pages of completely shocking details - was availables to members of Parliament; but not more then two copies for each party. Journalists had it, but wanted to wring out every last drop before giving it away.
Putting it on the Net was far more work this time. It had to be scanned in by hand over the weekend, and corrected with WordPerfect. As we didn't have a very intelligent version of a scan-program, there were a lot of mistakes, I can asure you! But we did it, and it was a success.
And, because we are trying to grow up, we decided we had to try and make some money out of this big joke. Last week our Van Traa cd-rom saw the light of day. A complete copy of our Van Traa- site, the Internal Affairs report, and a selection of other works of buro Jansen & Janssen. All this for the price of only f 49,50 (including taxes and postage).
The sale of the cd-rom raises another question: will Netvertising work, or not? The cd-rom is only available by order, and in some selective bookshops. Will we go bankrupt, or do we get rich in the end? It goes without saying that buro Jansen & Janssen is a no-budget initiative, surviving on too little payment for jobs and small subsidies, doing most of the work for free and for the good case.
I really liked doing these things, even though it involved a lot of crap work, short nights and unexpected problems. It was so inspiring and yet so simple. This action was at the same time a natural continuation of Jansen & Janssen work, and an entirely new development. We have always loved disclosing secret reports on criminal investigation, but had never used Internet for this purpose before.
The action involved methods typical for the (Dutch) activist movement we come from - like breaking in and publishing. But nowadays hacking a cd-rom and putting it on your homepage is easy! Once you have the right people together at the right time, you take yourself seriously and it's done in no time. And it felt so good to break to monopoly of a -privatised- state organ, and to use Internet to make information public that is supposed to be public anyway. By just doing something, making a statement that didn't need any further introduction or explanation.
Our site meant a big step forward in talks between authorities on different levels and on organizing access for the public by means of electronic media. And it was an event welcomed by MP's to get the average couch potato more involved in politics. Our secret agenda was really to deepen the discussion on investigation methods. If more people had access to details about the affairs of modern policing, this would eventually lead to a debate on more essential points. But this hope was in vain, I'm afraid. Then again, it's hard to rate our influence on the discussion.
This is what Internet was meant for, people said, and I couldn't agree more. In thinking about the meaning of this action, I guess the value of it is in adding a dimension. The breaking of this information monopoly could not have been done -at least not so easily, or not without problems with the law- without Internet. On the other hand, the action added something to the ideas of the use of Internet and so was very inspiring. If the use of Internet adds a certain value to a discussion or supplies a special dimension to a campaign, then something really beautiful is happening. Sorry if I seem to get carried away a bit, but I think this is very important in developing ideas about political activism on the Net.
The second story I want to tell you is about the anti-McDonald's campaign and the supportive role Internet plays in the struggle against the Hamburger King. To fully understand the meaning McSpotlight - the most beautiful and accessible site I've ever seen, presenting all the information surrounding the campaign and the McLibel Trial - first a bit of background.
The McLibel Trial, which has pitted the mighty McDonald's Corporation against two unwaged environmental activists is something very special and unique itself. In 1990, London Greenpeace (a small campaigning group not related to Greenpeace International) was sued for libel by McDonald's. Instead of backing off, Helen Steel and Dave Morris accepted the challenge and went to court. Now they are successfully defending every single line of their critical leaflet, cross-examining scientists and McDonalds officials and winning at points in the London High Court. The trial celebrates its second anniversary this summer and is due to continue until November. The activists, nicknamed the McLibel Two, found themselves a new stage to critizise McDonalds in a more detailed way than they could ever have dreamed of. It is one of the best examples of using the courtroom as stage: here the facts can truly speak for themselves and McDonald's legal action backfires completely.
Internet was involved from the very beginning. Since the start of the trial, in June 1994, extracts from the transcripts of the hearings were being published on the Net, and McDonald's didn't like it at all. The case was becoming the biggest public relation disaster in the corporate history. Just after the trial celebrated it's first birthday, McDonald's tried to reach a settlement with the defendants - the company had had enough and wanted out. When the parties couldn't get to any kind of agreement, McDonald's choose the strategy of obstruction. I find it extremely significant that their first target was the publishing of the protocols. McDonald's had made an agreement at the beginning of the trial, that they would pay 300 pounds a day to have the transcripts of each day in Court ready by seven in the evening. (To wait for the Courts Office to do this would take three weeks.) Until day 156, the court and the McLibel 2 each got a free copy. Then it stopped. McDonald's wanted the Defendants to promise that they would only use the transcripts themselves. 'What it would prevent, and this is what this is all about, is their disseminating it (any transcript extract) to journalists and the McLibel Suport Campaign and similar like-minded', said McDonald's QC Richard Rampton. Not to mention, putting them on the Net. The defendants started a fund-raising campaign in order to pay the 300 pounds to get each day's transcripts.
Before McSpotlight, there also was the McLibel mailing list. Already a big success. Campaigners from anywhere keep each other up-to-date with all of the activities in the world-wide Anti- McDonald's campaign. The McLibel Trial became the virtual centre of targeting the Hamburger King. Suburbians against McDrives, loothers in Kopenhagen, Ghandi-inspired Fins discussing with their local McDonald, India against the invasion of McDonalds - all connected through Internet.
The mailing list is yet another excellent example of Internet adding a certain value to a campaign. The list connects otherwise relatively isolated protesters of all kinds. Internet helps to create a movement on a global scale. People who act in their own environment and with their own means, realize that their activities are part of a larger context. (Do I sound holistic here? please not!) Could the postman do the same? No, not really. Time delays, and the lack of direct contact would be frustrating. The advantages of being able to react immediately, and to support & advise people all over the world for the price of a local phone call, are immeasurable for campaigns such as this one.
There is no doubt that McDonald's underestimated their opponent. The sueing of London Greenpeace backfired, but I'm sure they had never expected anything like McSpotlight... A WWW-site with all the information about the longest running civil case in Britain ever, and more. Complete with an audio Guided Tour narrated by the McLibel 2, taking visitors round the key pages on the site - the case, the company, the circulum vitae of all the people involved in the trial and the coverage in the media. I particular like the cartoon section!
* Nutrition - Can a diet high in saturated fat and sugar lead to heart disease and cancer? |
* Advertising - Are children being manipulated by advertising?
* McDonald's International Expansion - Where will they invade next?
*Environment - Are McDonald's responsible for damage to rainforests?
*Recycling & Waste
*Multinationals and Global Trade
* Freedom of Speech/Libel laws
*Capitialism & the Alternatives
Their are so many links, and possibilities, and yet the site is so well organized and accesable. And so very well designed....I still get impressed, everytime I pay a visit. The brand new 'Debating Room' is another Internet innovation to be found on McSpotlight. It is essentially a moderated discussion group within the website that means that any visitor can take part in the discussion about the campaign against McDonald's.
A very good idea is the Campaign section which offers groups from all over the world to present themselves and their material. Translations of current Anti-McDonald's leaflet can be printed out in any desired language, what a service! This service is something of the category 'added value', you could call it an Internet speciality. In combination with all the information McSpotlight provides, it is the first worldwide activist manual. Facts and figures available, as well as a platform for publicity and support from all over the world. It makes campaigning against McDonald's not only pretty easy, but also very attractive. Not to mention the surplus of the site as an easy way to keep the public and the press informed about what's happening in Court. The media coverage of McSpotlight was overwelming, and is still going on. USA Today, Times of India, Chicago Tribune, Stern, Channel 4, BBC, the Guardian, Daily Mail etcetera. Only four weeks after its
launch McSpotlight celebrated its millionth visitor - including 2000 from McDonalds.com in the first week. McDonald's decided against taking action to try to ban the site initially, but apparently had second thoughts. In April they filed a plaintiff (added to the running case), which was too funny to be taken seriously. The Defendants are being accused of taking part in a 'photo-opportunity' outside McDonald's Leicester Square store and a press conference at the Cyberia Cafe in London. McDonald's point is the fact that the Defendants took part in publishing further the challenged factsheet.
So this is how McDonald's defines the site: 'On Friday, February 16, 1996, the Defendants publicly launched the 'McSpotlight' World-Wide Internet Web Site having on it, among other material, a version of the leaflet complained of (..)' This is what I call the understatement of the year. I think this is the first case in court in which people are being accused of 'encouraging users of the Internet to access the Website where they are likely to read the same' (i.e. the leaflet).
The final straw for McDonald's could well be the latest feature on McSpotlight - and as far as I know, this is the first time anyone on Internet has done this - in which, they use the 'Frames' browsing system to hijack McDonald's own corporate website. On one side of your screen you have McDonald's shiny, expensive website, and on the other you have a detailed deconstruction and criticism from McSpotlight. McDonald's carefully-constructed PR nonsense is taken apart word by word, and as McSpotlight contains 25 Mb of detailed information about McDonald's, they simply add links to the scientific reports, or witness statments or whatever, that support their arguments.
McSpotlight is the perfect example of how to combine safe & familiar activist methods of campaigning in the street - sneeking around in the dark hours at night - with using the new techniques of modern times in cyberspace. This can't be illustrated better then with the secret picture I saw of a signpost of McDonald's advertising board ('left at the roundabout') with the URL-address of McSpotlight added.
Net-activists cannot do without the old media, not entirely. The controversy between acces provider xs4all.nl and the Church of Scientology proved that. Xs4all is a provider founded by the former anarcho-hackers famous for their underground magazine HackTic ('xs4all', say it aloud: 'acces for all'). Started two years ago, they are now running a fastgrowing access providing company. But they have not forgotten their roots, and are always in for fun, or for some political controversy. (They helped us out with our Van Traa site technically, and with the cd-rom). In the summer of 1995 xs4all got into serious problems with the Church of Scientology. An accountholder had put the famous Fishman-affidavit on his homepage. This needs some explanation, I'm afraid.
Scientology is not really a church, but more a profit seeking company. Or a sect if you wish. To become a full member you have to take several courses at different levels, and pay for them. The higher levels of these courses are kept secret, only available for those who reached those sacred hights. Ex-members are being terrorized and blackmailed to keep them from exposing their stories in the media.
Steven Fishman was one of them, he worked in the department of Scientology that had to deal with defectors. So he had some stories to tell when he left the sect. Scientology followed him around the world with slander, libel and lawsuits. But Fishman didn't give in. He even used the written material of the high- level courses, called OT's, as evidence in one of the cases in Court. This in fact made the so called secrets accessible for the public. They consist of complete nonsenses, stories about UFO's, immortallity and the bad things in your body you have to conquer, and kill, which is, of course, not possible without paid counseling from the Church. Now that the OT's were in the Court's library, the holy secret could have been a sell out. But not for Scientology. They set up teams to work in shifts and study the affidavits in the library, so nobody else could ask for them. After a year or so Scientology managed to get a court order to remove the papers from the library again.
And that is where Internet comes in. People started putting the Fishman-affidavit on their homepage, and Scientology came after them. Threatened providers, sued them, just to cause a lot of problems and scare others off. But not the Dutchies. When Scientology found out about the first Dutch homepage, they started a procedure against xs4all. Before anything was clear, they got themselves a search warrant and barged into the xs4all headquarters to seizure all property. There was a baillif, some American officials, computer specialists and a lot of Scientologists - twelve in total. They wanted to draw up an inventory, to use to prove xs4all's credibility if the case ever went to court - and they would win. (Silly thing is, they only wrote down the pc's in the main office, and forgot to go and check out the engine room with hundreds of modems and the big Unix systems).
This was a bridge too far. People who heard about the raid were stupefied, indignant, and extremely angry. Some of them started putting the Fishman affidavit on their own home page. The writer Karin Spaink took a lead in organizing the protests and within a week one hundred people from all over the country had an addition to their homepage. Karin Spaink started a mailinglist to keep all those individuals informed, and that was more then necessary.
All kind of people joined, forming an extraordinairy occasional coalition. Journalists, a liberal MP, commercial broadcasting stations, people at universities, catholics, christians, activists, you name it. They all had accounts with different providers, so they were kind of hard to get. I am sure this coalition would not have survived a reallife meeting, let alone a discussion on the strategy. Some of them would have detested eachother at first sight, just because the way they looked, or smelled or talked. But on the Net, everybody joined for their own reason, for the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, or just to tease Scientology. And this was the strength of the action. Karin Spaink was the spokeswoman in the press and coordinated the legal steps. A newsgroup was founded to discuss important matters, with sympathisers as well, but the list was moderated and closed. This worked, and it really helped.
Scientology pulled out all the stops to reduce the damage. When persuading didn't help, they started threatening providers, and harrassing some of the participants. The liberal MP for instance, got so many phonecalls from CoS, that he felt forced to remove the Fishman papers temporarily because he couldn't get on with his work. They even tried to frame Karin Spaink and some people from xs4all in a setup so complicated it would take hours to explain. (Someone -said to be- working for the American Embassy offered them compromising information about Scientology in order to help them fight the Church. But soon it came out he had been in touch with Scientology before he talked the xs4all.) They started to build their mirror palace, to play people off against one another. But it didn't really work here.
Scientology started a procedure for violating copyrights, against several providers and Karin Spaink. As this would be the first case on copyright & Internet, some people thought it a shame it had to be a Scientology case. Because the principle of the matter could easily be confused with their smoke screen of freedom of religion.
The occasional coalition hired a good laywer, still remembered for his work for revolutionaires in the seventies. The Fishman Affidavit was printed on old fashioned posters (pure text layout, it's quite a lot of letters..) which were soon seen in the centre of the city, specially around CoS-headquarters. They had their people sneeking around with spray and lime to repaint the posters. A date was set for the Court hearing, at the request of Scientology months after the procedure started. Their biggest problem was the secrecy of the challenged papers. In order to claim the copyright, they would have to come forward with the orginals. And thus, break their own secrecy. They tried to solve this dilemma by hiring a public notary to comparise the orginal documents and the Internet version. This took him a long time.
Two days before the case was due in Court, the very night the Fishman supportgroup held a solidarity night in the Milkyway (well known to every smoking visitor of Amsterdam), Scientology announced that they were withdrawing the case. The notary had not been able to declare the two documents were exactly identical. Goodbye copyright claim.
This support gathering was a big success. Celebrities read out horrifying statements from ex members, and comical parts of the so called secret wisdom of the Church. Star of the show was David Fishman himself, flown in from the United States. He was completely flabbergasted as he hardly knew about the Internet struggle about his Affidavit before a friend introduced him to the Net a short time before. It sure was inspiring for him to be in Amsterdam. And he was not the only Yank present. Scientology had brought the top of their public relation staff - easily identified by their stiff, aloof faces.
Isn't it funny, the night in the Milkyway was the top of the campaign? The fight with Scientology origanally was a pure Internet event. The challenge was, whether or not, something could be published, on the Net. Support came through newsgroups and connected people in the United States, and the campaign spread, around the world (to Hungary for instance). The primary attack was against a provider, which aroused the anger of Dutch users of the Net. The coalition they formed wouldn't have survived reallife meetings, but florished in Cyberspace.
This was new. But then again, the campaign couldn't do without the Old Media. A case in Court, a laywer from the seventies, a blackbook by sect-watchers and paperprints postered in the street. A sole window smashed, a meeting in a hippyjoint and good coverage in the papers. And Scientology brought out another law suit, we won, and they brought out a new one. This is a neverending story.
The last tale I want to tell you was the absolute reverse. An activist paper, printed on paper, was supported by a digital version on the Net.
On May 3rd, Dutch special branch police from Arnhem raided the premises of the Amsterdam activist bi-weekly 'Ravage' (previously "NN") They made off with all the (7) computers, as well as all the book-keeping & administration records (7 garbage-bags full). The alleged cause was that Ravage was the sole recipient of a claim-letter, purportedly sent by the 'Earth Liberation Front'.
The ELF claimed a bomb attack on the buildings of the german chemical concern BASF, Arnhem subsidiary, several weeks before. This bomb attack (quite some damage, no casualties) is still unresolved. The text of the claim letter was short. 'Arnhem. The polluter will pay. Even old bills. oct 17, 4.5.V4.', and signed 'ELF'.
This letter was published in the May 3 issue of Ravage, whereupon the police, instead of following the usual course of negotiations, threats, and compromise, as is the usual with more established media, went in for a large-scale raid. Due to some logistical & organisational troubles and the fact that they were in for a full 3 hours in Ravage's offices, this raid resulted in some nasty rioting with the activists that had made for the premises in the meanwhile. The computers were returned on the next Monday: Ravage claims one of them damaged. The rest of the seizures were returned on Thursday, with one sack full missing (containing the dustbins!) as it vanished during the riot at the premises' exit.
This is not the first time the Dutch justice system has dragged its nets wide on the 'activist's networks' by raiding sympathetic but independent media or its journalists. This time the public outrage was pretty massive, with the Dutch Federation of Journalists complaining loudly, and an extremely severe editorial in the morning daily 'De Volkskrant'.
The criminal justice department and the police risk criticism making this kinds of raids on selected targets. They do it nevertheless and get hold of a wealth of inside information on a wide range of groups & persons (eg animal right activists, anti-airport agitators, defenders of asylum-seekers, etc. etc.) which would be hard to get otherwise.
Buro Jansen & Janssen thought we were duty bound to put the emergency edition of Ravage, published four days after the raid, on our homepage. Attempts to silence critical voices should be reported not only to the Index On Censorship, but also in Cyberspace. If endangered spieces like the values of freedom of speech and of information gathering are at the stake, Internet should speak up. Even though the exemption of sources is an oldfashioned problem on the Net, Old and New Media should be comrades in arms.
I wonder what's next...
Van Traa Report:
The Van Traa cd-rom can be ordered at the Jansen & Janssen office. Please call or mail them so they can tell you the easiest way to send money from your country.
Buro Jansen & Janssen
tel: ++ 31-20-6123202
fax: ++ 31-20-6168967
P.O. Box 10591 1001 EN Amsterdam the Netherlands