Interview with ricardo dominguez on online-activism

23.May.01 - "They won't have your names, when you ride the big airplane. All they will call you will be deportees" (Woody Guthrie)

On June 20th "no one is illegal" and "libertad!" call for a virtual sit-in and a real stand up against the deportation business. At the occasion of the Lufthansa's yearly shareholder meeting on June 20th activists from all over the world are going to demonstrate online and offline against the Lufthansa "Deportation class".

The activists announced to provide "a user-friendly protest-software, which will make it possible to keep the computers of Lufthansa busy by using an automaticized inquiry". Their aim is to show "massive and international criticism of the Lufthansa Airlines deportation business". Simultaneously, inside the shareholder meeting activists are going to display their disgust for the ongoing deportation business carried out by one of the worlds leading airline.

At the occasion of the online demonstration on June 20th Ricardo Dominguez from New York, godfather of "hacktivism" , is going to give six lectures in cities all over Germany. He's going to introduce the ideas, the history and the background of "hacktivism" and virtual sit-ins. Activists of the "Deportation.Class"-Campaign outline their activities and last, but not least: the concept of the online-demonstration is going to be presented.

28.05. Munich: Muffathalle/Stoffwechsel 29.05. Frankfurt: bcn-cafe 30.05. Koeln: Kunsthochschule fuer Medien 31.05. Leipzig: Uni Leipzig 01.06. Hamburg: Hochschule fr Wirtschaft und Politik 02.06. Berlin: Humboldt Uni

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Interview with Ricardo Dominguez on the eve of the online-demonstration against the Lufthansa Deportation.Class

Q: Ricardo, what the heck is a "online-demonstration"?

A: It is a method of allowing a networked community to gather on a site, or several different URLs of site, or different sites and create a disturbance of collective presence in a non-violent manner. Online-demonstration tools, or Virtual Sit-in tools, use the reload or refresh function on every public browser to call on a particular page or pages of the site that being protested over and over - taking into account how many people around the planet are participating and for how long they participate.

This re-loading of URLs of the protested site creates a slow down of the site's normal distribution speed - the more people join the online-demonstration the slower the site will become. In the same manner that a thousands of people doing a traditional sit-in in an office building will slow down the movement of the people inside. The sit-in does not destroy the walls of the building or the floor, or hurt the people inside, but - it does cause a great deal of disturbance because the collective presence of the protest community shifts the daily routine towards a political and symbolic space. The VR Sit-in does exactly the same thing on a digital level - the big difference is that anyone with an on-line connection anywhere in the world can participate at the same time.

Q: Did it ever work?

A: Yes a number actions since 1998 have created a change in policy or a reexamination of the low-intensity warfare conditions that many marginal communities around the world have faced. During 1998 the Electronic Disturbance Theater in solidarity with the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico created deep symbolic pressure on the Mexican government by creating a great deal international press about VR Sit-ins and what the Zapatistas were calling for. Since that time Mexican dictatorship of PRI has fallen and the call of the Zapatistas has gained more ground in Mexico - in fact the Zapatistas were able to march into Mexico City and speak before congress - a great victory.

In 1999 two important on-line actions took place. The electrohippes (from the UK) did a major action against the WTO meeting in Seattle that gathered about 500,000 people around the world that added to energy that was flooding the streets. This created even more press about the issues that the were bring such large protests onto the streets. Several other important actions around WTO and recently FTAA have followed - each adding just a bit more weight to the bodies on the streets.

Also, the famous Toywar, that occurred in December of 1999 where a number of groups like rtmark, the thing, and EDT did a VR Sit-in along with a number of other actions to support the net.art group etoy.com against eToys.com, the now dead toy .com, that attempted to take that net.art groups domain name. By Jan 15th, 2000 eToys.com relented and ended the legal proceedings against etoy.com.

Recently, The Living Wage protest at Harvard, used a VR Sit-in component and the day after the digital action Harvard gave in. Just a few days before the President of Harvard stated that he would never give in to the Living Wage protesters demands for 10.25 and hour wages for the workers or even sit at table to discuss benefits for them Harvard - now he is sitting at the table.

Q: What characterizes or determines the success of e-protest? In terms of efficiency, is there a difference between online activities and what we know from the offline world?

A: The same characteristics that determine the offline actions go for e-protest. Making sure the information of when, where, how ,and most importantly why, is distributed to the widest circles possible. Making sure that the tools are accessible to as many people as possible and that the tools are available on a number of servers around the world - so no single server has to maintain the entire action. That is why we have also pushed for client-side tools in conjunction with server side tools. If at all possible making sure that e-protest is just one element of a much larger and long term strategic protest. The e-protest is more efficient if it functions as a symbolic leverage node for the actions taking place on the ground - the virtual and real should link up and energize each other - the e-protest without the street actions becomes meaningless. (Of course, as in the Toywar, if the protest site exists only on-line, like eToys.com - then the nature of the ground actions would be quiet different or almost non-existent.)

It is also important to leverage the media heat that e-protest creates by making sure that the issues and reasons for the protest are the dominant information that appears in the media and not just the nature of e-protest - is it legal or illegal, is it DoS (Denial-of-Service) or not? - each activist involved must always place the reason for the action at the forefront of discussion, interview, or presentation. The nature of the e-protest in terms of its digital quality should be just a side issue and nothing more.

Q: A "Hacktivist" is a hybrid of a hacker and a activist. How did you become an "Hacktivist" and why?

A: I was a member of Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) from 1987 to 1995. During that time I also worked with Act Up, Tallahassee - that's where CAE was born. So between these two types of projects the idea of Electronic Civil Disobedience (ECD) emerged as possible space for future of activism. I became deeply involved in attempting not only to imagine it, but to see it be put into practice. I then started to teach my self technology at Thing.net, Blast.org, and 1994 became a founding member of the New York Zapatistas - it was the Zapatistas who became for me the fulcrum of what ECD could be in practice.

In response to the Acteal Massacre of December 22, 1997 where 45 Zapatista women and children were killed by Mexican paramilitary troops armed U.S. Drug War weapons - The Electronic Disturbance Theater came into being after we received an e-mail from an Italian netstrike group calling for a manual reloading of sites of the Mexican government for 4 hours.

Then Brett Stalbaum and Carmin Karasic built the Zapatista FloodNet which automated the process - then along with theorist and activist Stefan Wray we did a year long series of VR Sit-ins against the Mexican Government and attempted to develop the protocols and practice of ECD: transparency, linking virtual and street actions, non-violence, open source code, and simple tools.

At one minute after midnight on January 1, 1999 EDT released the Disturbance Developers Kit (DDK) that would allow anyone to create e-protest - by that time the media had started to call us Hacktivist. EDT never named its self that - but, it stuck and now a whole movement has emerged.

Q: Some people think, that the "virtual" is just a substitute of reality, something unreal and therefore worse. What do you answer to such objections?

A: I don't think any type of activism wrong, be it virtual or real. What is important is that we attract as many different people to participate in the work and help with actions in whatever manner we can and whatever manner they can. E-protest can make our gatherings and actions glocal - not just local or global, but both at the same time. Also, sometimes, people who have families and need to work, or are homebound, or don't have enough money to travel to join the street action - can also participate and show their support - they should not be left out, because they can only join the e-action and not the street action. E-protest is just one more tool that we can add to our pile of tactics - it is not a strategy. E-protest is an active poster, an active puppet in the streets, or music to call the people to action - it is just a tool and nothing more or less than that.

Q: On the other hand, the internet seems to be widely overestimated. How not to raise hopes, which are not fulfillable or satisfiable?

A: Again, e-protest is a simple tactic - it will not resolve the issues that we all face today just because it on the Internet. The Internet is not a way to some utopia or apocalypse - no one should place their hopes on it. But, the Internet can become an ante-chamber of shared questions and spaces where perhaps this time as the Zapatistas say, "the apple will fall up." After all this is Mayan Technology.

Q: Lufthansa AG argues, that their servers are so strong, and the activists so weak, that there won't be a visible or even remarkable effect of the demonstration. Would you worry about that?

A: No, not at all. It does not matter how big or strong AG servers are - it is very difficult to stop symbolic actions in conjuction with media distribution about the actions and its connections with the long term work of activist before this action and after this action. The on-line demonstration is just a focus point for the community - it is not about crashing servers. EDT went up against the Pentagon, the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, and the Mexican goverments web servers - we never crashed any servers - no matter what myths have developed around our actions. We did create a great deal of media response and distribution about our cause, the Zapatistas - which was the main trajectory of the actions.

On-line actions are not about technical efficiency - but about symbolic efficacy. The Zapatistas have become the dominant infomation war, or better said, InfoPeace community with poetry against arms, words above war, and gestures that go beyond the bounds of what technology can accomplish.

"We saw that our silence was shield and sword which wounded and exhausted those who want to impose the war. We saw our silence make Power which simulates peace and good government slip time and again, and make their powerful death machine crash time and again against the silent wall of our resistance. We saw that each new attack they won less and lost more. We saw that by not fighting, we were fighting." --Fifth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, [The Zapatistas, 1999]