Science: Search Engines: Second site Kosovo's Web resistance

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AFTER 30 years, the Net has faced and met the challenge for which it was originally designed. In the late 1960s, computer engineers devised the idea of a computer network which, by virtue of having no centre, could survive a massive military attack. Parts of it would be destroyed, but the rest of the system could reorganise to continue its work. Back then, it was envisaged that the network would be a US military system, and the assault would be a nuclear one mounted by the Soviet Union in a war with Nato. Now the principle has been tested in a war in which the aggressor appears to have made the destruction of information one of its key objectives.

A year ago, in this column's predecessor, I referred to Kosova (as the Albanians spell it) as a state-in-waiting. Its websites could complement the network of autonomous structures which the Kosovar Albanians had developed over the previous decade, in a strategy of non-violent withdrawal from Yugoslav institutions. I also described Kosova as the first Internet- ready conflict. Now, the Kosovar Web network has been the first to suffer the effects of a devastating military offensive. And it has turned out to be Internet-ready after all.

The effects of the assault can be read in error messages. For example, "The attempt to load http:// failed". This is unsurprising, since Koha Ditore is the leading Kosovar Albanian newspaper. Last year, it provided graphic pictures and accounts of Serbian brutality for Kosovar Web pages. When Nato started bombing, the paper was suppressed and its premises were destroyed. The Kosova Information Center suffered a similar fate, as did Pristina's Radio 21. The crackdown is marked by pages that remain on-line but immobile, last updated on 23 March.

Before the Nato strikes, Kosovar manifestations on the Internet were in a different league from their Yugoslav opposition. Serbian apologist sites wallowed in their devious historical rhetoric, while the Kosovar pages showed the kind of pictures that have only been splashed in the established media since the war became intercontinental. Since the strikes began, however, the voices of Serbian grievance have become more diverse. Up to this point, Serbian media presences have varied only in whether they are creepy or sinister. Now Serbs who sound like normal human beings are voicing their anger and hurt over being attacked by Nato. Since more of them have had Internet access than Kosovar Albanians, they have been better able to colour the tone of e-mail discussions, and to send messages which are then reproduced in other media.

As many commentators have noted, though, Serbian claims of grievance are undermined by the indifference shown by Serbs of all shades of opinion towards the plight of the Kosovar Albanians. Facile prophets of peace through communications technology like to claim that the free exchange of information leads to political freedom. But satellite dishes and modems do not seem to have led anti-Milosevic Serbs to take up the Kosovar cause. Milosevic didn't need Internet censorship software to block Kosovar websites. The Serbs already had it installed in their mental operating systems.

For the rest of the world, though, the Kosovar Web remains wounded but functional. This is a symbolic victory in the face of the Serbian forces' apparent efforts to destroy Kosovar Albanian institutional records, and the dreadful hints that the intelligentsia itself is also a target. In the last century, the emerging nations of Europe kept themselves alive under imperial rule in their writing and music. Kosova is the first to use websites as a way of sustaining a people in exile. In another 20 years, a struggling nation may be able to store vital records safely on computers overseas. But, unlike a computer network, a people cannot be sustained by dispersing it around the world.

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