Like most wars, it was fought largely by teenagers. There were triumphant victories, shattering defeats, questionable acts in the heat of battle and tears for fallen comrades. Then, as the fighting dragged on: criticism at home, disillusionment and finally despair. "I am saddened by the outcome of this all," declared prOphet, a one-time American war hero turned pacifist. Blasting his comrades for calling the enemy "gooks and worse," he delivered a 21st century soldier's eulogy to peace, love and understanding: "Just drop this already on both sides."The first superpower cyberwar lasted nine days. By its end, more than 2,000 websites in China and the U.S. lay defaced: Chinese e-mail bombs had briefly blown the White House home page to overload hell and "hegemony" had entered the popular hacker vocabulary. The Chinese side plastered homages to Wang Wei, the fighter pilot lost at sea after a collision with a U.S. surveillance plane, on government, media and company sites across America. Pro-U.S. hackers promptly returned his image, retouched to show Wang wearing fuchsia lipstick, mauve eye shadow and rouge.
It's unclear who won. But as the cybersmoke clears, it's becoming apparent that two great powers met in combat, without politicians, commanders or bullets. Governments communist and capitalist were digital sitting ducks for cybersaboteurs. "When the Chinese hackers threatened our servers, I wanted to step up and say something about it," says prOphet, a twentysomething systems administrator from the Pacific Northwest. And who could stop him?
Technology is energizing grassroots politics of all stripes: call it powering up. In the Philippines, protesters using cell-phone text messaging mobilized hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in January to help oust President Joseph Estrada. Miguel Arroyo, husband of new President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, says her supporters kept urging everyone to head to the edsa shrine, the main focus of the People Power II movement. "We texted everybody to go running there: 'edsa. edsa: everybody converge on edsa!'" In China, tens of thousands of followers of the spiritual group Falun Gong continue to exist despite a harsh crackdown in a vibrant community fed by the Web and encrypted text messaging. Last November, after learning from foreign news sites of the arrival of the first American President since the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousands of citizens lined the streets of Hanoi to welcome Bill Clinton despite a state information blackout. And in Mexico, the Zapatistas have swapped AK-47s for online propaganda and Web sit-ins. E-support for their call for indigenous rights has spread from the jungles of Chiapas to the outside world, culminating in an internationally backed march on Mexico City two months ago. "We do not believe that only nation-states have the legitimate authority to engage in war and aggression," says the Zapatista-allied Electronic Disturbance Theater. "We see cyberspace as a means to enter present and future arenas of conflict, and to do so across international borders."
Technology is tilting the balance of political power away from government and toward the individual. Multinational interest groups like Greenpeace and anti-globalism protesters can promote their aims and coordinate world campaigns instantly. Dissidents, rebels and terrorists can publicize, organize and attack in virtual territory beyond state control and reach wide audiences without trusting their message to the filter of the media. Thirteen of the 29 groups listed as "terrorists" by the U.S. State Department maintain websites. "Hactivist" groups are pushing causes from Kashmiri separatism to Palestinian nationhood to Brazilian anticorporatism. Though it's difficult to differentiate political campaigns from out-and-out vandalism, attrition.org, a security site, counted 1,546 hacked sites around the world in April, up from just 356 a year earlier. Says Damon Bristow, head of the Asia program at London's Royal United Services Institute, an international strategic research group: "With more communications technology, the individual becomes more and more powerful and the government less and less able to control [him]."
Governments still dominate the political equation, of course. But online activists are chipping away at their grip on power, adding a new voice to debates that often can't be ignored. In foreign policy, unsanctioned cyberwars like the U.S.-China dustup are increasingly common during times of international tension. In 1999, hackers in China and Taiwan exchanged cyberfire over then President Lee Teng-hui's claim of statehood, as did Indonesian nationalists and supporters of independence for East Timor. During the Kosovo campaign that year, Chinese, Yugoslav and Russian hackers joined forces against NATO. Independent American hackers brought down the Yugoslav state site, though that unwittingly undermined NATO's strategy of trying to fight Serbian propaganda by bombing conventional state-run media while leaving the local Internet infrastructure intact.
Within nations, as well, cyberactivists are working the system. Last November, U.S. election officials watched the presidential voting system evolve outside their control as supporters of Ralph Nader and Al Gore agreed to swap votes on the Internet. Here's how it worked: a Naderite in a marginal state would vote Gore while a Gore voter in a "safe" Democrat state picked Nader, boosting Gore's support in key states while retaining Nader's popular vote. (The legality of vote swapping is still being debated in some states.)
The U.S. election also gave a boost to efforts to use the Internet as a ballot box, to avoid the crippling challenge of trying to accurately count, or recount, ballots that have been clumsily cast. Elsewhere, such options may emerge as a means of overcoming the kinds of bullying tactics that can mar an election. Spain, for example, may allow voters in the troubled Basque region to cast their ballots over the Net from home to bypass intimidation from separatists.
For the most part, however, governments are still on the defensive. One of the first acts of Arroyo's new administration in the Philippines was to persuade the two largest mobile-network operators, Smart Communications and Globe Telecom, to block "malicious, profane and obscene" texting, a move that would make a text-messaging revolt like the one that unseated her predecessor more difficult. To censor chat rooms, Beijing has adopted broad guidelines that ban content that "is against the national constitution, endangers state security, reveals state secrets, sabotages unity among ethnic groups and spreads heretical ideas." In Britain, laws against terrorism now cover actions that "seriously interfere with or seriously disrupt an electronic system" such as e-mail bombs or viruses.
In the end, it's difficult to regulate access to technology or its use. The nature of the Internet borderless, fast, atomized, anonymous works against the state's traditional grip on power. According to international press monitor Reporters Sans Frontieres, 20 governments now significantly restrict Internet access. But Web users can easily use "anonymizer" sites to circumvent the blockers and surf freely and in secret. "Our technology restricts the ability of governments to censor the Internet," says Stephen Hsu, founder and CEO of an anonymizer called SafeWeb, from where users can load a tool for blocking traces onto their browser windows before they begin surfing. "It promotes freedom of expression and the right to privacy."
There are plenty of people, Hsu included, who view the Net's role in broadening the political debate as beneficial. "New channels of expression foster the democratic process," says Hsu. But there are costs, particularly with the kinds of guerrilla tactics that the most technologically sophisticated activists have at their fingertips. Hackers erode the fabric of political debate as much as they challenge state control, says Cancer Omega, a systems administrator at attrition.org. "The U.S.-China cyberwar wasn't about politics," he says. "It was simply a high-tech version of two dogs bent on being the last to mark a fire hydrant." But all agree the trend is unstoppable, even a symptom of broader progress. "Technology is seen by governments as the way to improve growth," says Bristow. "But by opening up your borders to it, you're also opening up to instability. Striking a balance is impossible." In his war-weary lament, it seems prOphet had seen the shape of pings to come.