Workers unite on the network: Mike Holderness discovers that enthusiastic hackers are not the only operators using communications technology to challenge the status quo

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The Independent Online
OPERATORS in the computer communications 'underground' in the past usually have been preoccupied with the challenges of computing itself - stories of 13- year-olds hacking into Nasa from their bedrooms come to mind. Now, groups who seriously want to challenge businesses or governments are picking up on the most advanced communications tools, using a technology originally developed for military and financial communications for their own causes.

When opposition groups in South Africa were banned, many fed information to liberal newspapers from personal computers around the country. They are now able to leave behind their semi-clandestine past to operate more openly and are keen to expand their computer communications.

Meanwhile, a women's group in Mexico City which collects information about US employers moving into the country to recruit cheap female labour has been able to use the same databases consulted by the competing American companies.

Protest groups opposing regimes from Uruguay to the Philippines are plugging in their computers and planning their political resistance.

Trade unions and charities in the industrialised world are keen to give computer equipment to groups elsewhere. If an impoverished group can persuade a better-funded organisation to donate a modem to connect to the phone and can obtain a reliable phone line - often the most difficult part - they can then make contact with millions of people worldwide via international computer networks.

This can make governments nervous. Some African regimes are unhappy that a few unions seem to be using more advanced technology than they are. In India, a modem cannot be connected to a phone line without official permission (as was the case in the UK until the late Seventies).

But in South Africa in 1988, according to Taffy Adler, a director of the Worknet electronic mail service, 'in general the authorities settled for surveillance rather than direct intervention. They cut our links at certain crucial moments, when they thought we'd be transmitting information'.

Intervention can be more subtle than cutting the line, according to Francis Tan of the Catholic- funded Hong Kong Asian Center for the Progress of Peoples: 'In 1987, every time someone tried to send a fax out of Malaysia calling for protest at the mass detentions, their machine would report that it had transmitted the fax in full. Only the first few lines would arrive. If they can do that to fax, they can easily do it to electronic mail.'

However, most of the hazards these activists face seem to result from the content of their communications, not the form. Another South African activist tells me she has received four explicit death threats and countless harassment calls - and then, embarrassed, reaches over to scribble out my notes.

'That's nothing compared to what other people have been through,' she says, in a reference to the thousands killed in political violence since President F W de Klerk's speech un-banning organisations in February 1990.

However, Elaine Burns, from a group called 'Mujer a Mujer' (Woman to Woman) in Mexico City, believes that 'the more you communicate, the safer you are, much safer than maintaining a clandestine existence'.

Mujer a Mujer uses electronic mail to stay in daily contact, at low cost, with a handful of key contacts in the US and Canada. 'After the Mexico City earthquake, which destroyed the garment district, we had many requests from women for information on the companies they were directly or indirectly working for,' Ms Burns says.

Shirley Miller, a safety co-ordinator for the Chemical Workers' Industrial Union in South Africa, says the group was 'dragged, cajoled and persuaded into connecting' to computer networks. 'The international federation in Geneva got fed up with searching information out for us. We can now access databases to get instant information on health and safety issues,' she says.

'We've been able to start from the one word 'Atlas' and get extensive information on the explosives manufacturer we were interested in.'

There are also initiatives in the industrialised world. The Canadian Public Service Workers' Union is about to buy portable computers for 200 of its roving negotiators. The National Union of Journalists in the UK has set up an on-line information and communication service for members, called NUJnet.

Such initiatives in the developed West depend on financial resources unavailable to radical organisations in other parts of the world. But this is not the only obstacle to contact between north and south. The cost of accessing computer databases, which are overwhelmingly based in the United States, can be high. Storing information from them for redistribution is illegal.

'If I write an irrelevant message only one screen long, and someone in India reads it by mistake, they may have to miss a lunch to pay for it,' says Jagdish Parikh, who works for the UN non-governmental organisations' NGOnet in Uruguay.

Mr Tan wonders why wealthy organisations do not translate their messages from word-processor formats, containing computer control codes, into the more compact plain text form, which may use up only a sixth of the space. 'They would reply: 'Time is money.' I could only respond: 'For us, money is money,' ' Mr Tan says. 'Training should include making people aware of who is paying for your mistakes.'

Marlene Powell trains employees of unions affiliated to the radical Cosatu confederation to use computers. 'Before 1990, a union was well off if it had one typewriter. Now they all have one to seven computers, which have been donated by the Italian CGIL trade union confederation.

'It's not easy. The education system in South Africa has taught everybody - but especially Africans - that they're incapable of learning. People tend to want rote-learning rather than to understand and experiment with the new systems.'

Ms Powell has often rewritten computer manuals to make them more easily understood. 'It's exciting to see people gain confidence,' she says.

Is the new equipment controlled by men? 'No. Most has gone to the administrators, some of whom are men. Now the higher-ups are seeing what can

be done and want their own machines.'

Cosatu used electronic mail most when it was producing a newspaper in five languages. Articles would be sent off for translation into Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho. Then, she says, 'we discovered that although people converse in the vernacular, they read in English'.

The problem of language becomes much more difficult. Mr Parikh says: 'One cannot communicate via computer within India using any of the major languages. And I know of no project to develop hardware support for the Indian scripts.'

Despite the obstacles, Ms Burns of Mujer a Mujer sees the new technology as a means of developing 'new forms of organising'. 'In the Maquila (free trade) zones of Mexico, big strikes would be suicidal: building power and confidence at the daily and community level is the key.

'We're engaged in building a new social pact, organising around our identity as women, our cultural identity. The old organisation, based on companies and factories, is not working. That would leave us feeling powerless, had we not come across something new which works.'