Stick It to the Man: How the Web Spurs Political Change

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Stick It to the Man: How the Internet Helps Revolution Thrive
From Egyptians chanting in Tahrir Square, to a lone woman protesting clear-cutting of ancient trees, to indigenous people fighting for a better life, activists across the globe have turned to online tools such as blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to help bring about social and corporate change.

Recent online protests against two antipiracy bills that are pending before Congress represent just the latest in a string of highs and lows for the Internet and its power as a tool for social activism. Earlier this month, online organizations and companies such as Craigslist, Google, Mozilla, Reddit, and Wikipedia blocked access to their sites or posted messages of protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA).

Critics say that the two bills would fundamentally harm the free flow of information on the Internet and impede online innovation. The Electronic Frontier Foundation called the bills an attempt to create a "U.S. censorship regime."

As a result of the protests, more than 162 million people saw Wikipedia's protest page, 4.5 million people signed Google's anti-SOPA/PIPA petition, and many U.S. politicians dropped their support for the bills. Some protesters even got out from behind their desks to join physical or--as they say in Internet parlance--"meatspace" protests in New York and San Francisco. Last week, Congress put SOPA and PIPA on hold to reconsider the bills in the face of the public outcry.

[Read: "SOPA and PIPA: What Went Wrong?"]

Whether you accept or reject the premise that Twitter can change the world, digital activism is clearly becoming one of many resources that participants in activist movements and causes worldwide now pack into their toolkits. Here's a chronological look at ten protests that have employed digital tools to help overthrow governments, reverse corporate policies, and fight for the right gamble online. Some of these movements were successful; others not so much.

Digital Natives: 1994

EZLN spokesperson, Subcommandante Marcos; photo credit: Jose Villa.
EZLN spokesperson, Subcommandante Marcos; photo credit: Jose Villa.
In 1994, the militant group Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) staged an armed takeover of four towns in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, an area rich in natural resources. The EZLN, taking its name from Mexico's revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata, protested the Mexican government's exploitation of Chiapas with almost no benefit going to the region's indigenous peoples.

To further its political goals, the EZLN used email lists, Usenet groups, and numerous websites to help distribute its revolutionary message.

In the late 1990s, the Electronic Disturbance Theater, a group sympathetic to the EZLN, also staged virtual sit-ins by launching denial-of-service attacks against Mexican and U.S. government websites, according to the New York Times. The EZLN's use of online tools to further the group's political goals appears to be one of the earliest examples of online activism.

Activism: Very effective

The Antisecurity Movement or #AntiSec (Anonymous): 1999?-Present

Protesters and media--well, mostly media--rush a car during the Anonymous protest at San Francisco's Civic Center BART station on August 15, 2011; photo credit: Lauren Crabbe.
Protesters and media--well, mostly media--rush a car during the Anonymous protest at San Francisco's Civic Center BART station on August 15, 2011; photo credit: Lauren Crabbe.
The AntiSec movement is an especially controversial instance of online activism. Members of the hacker collective Anonymous and of a somewhat related group called LulzSec have crashed websites and published stolen credit card data, email messages, and other personal data in what they view as efforts to expose corruption or draw attention to causes they support.

The group has gone after such varied targets as the Arizona State Police, the San Francisco Bay Area's rapid transit system, security consulting firm Booz Allen, and the security company HBGary Federal. Most recently, Anonymous disrupted the websites of the U.S. Department of Justice, the Recording Industry Association of America, and Universal Music, in retaliation for the recent shutdown and seizure of the Megaupload network of sites.

Activism: Somewhat effective

Next: Tree sitting, Iran, the Poker lobby, Facebook users, and It Gets Better

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