Archaeology of the Radical Internet: Reflections on the Early European Counter Network in the Age of ‘Networked Social Movements’

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ecn1The euphoria of Occupy and the ‘Arab Spring’ seems a long way away. The mass movements on the streets and in the squares from 2010 to 2013 seemed to many to open up new forms of collective politics amidst a new global geography of public spaces – Tahrir Square (Cairo), Gezi Park (Istanbul), Zuccotti Park (New York), Puerta del Sol Square (Madrid), Syntagma square (Athens)…and many more. In his overview Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions (2012), Paul Mason wrote that ‘There is a great river of human hope flowing’.
Manuel Castells – who I heard speaking at Occupy London to an audience seated on the steps of St Pauls Cathedral – also saw new hope in the emergence of non-hierarchical, non-programmatic ‘networked social movements’, facilitated and indeed transformed by new social media technologies, with ‘mass self-communication, based on horizontal networks of interactive, multidirectional communication on the internet and, even more so, in wireless communication networks’. Indeed, Castells argued, ‘the internet provides the organisational communication platform to transform the culture of freedom into the practice of autonomy’ (‘Network of Outrage and hope: social movements in the internet age’, 2012).

But right now, towards the end of 2014, it is increasingly difficult to sustain this optimism. The Syrian uprising has been followed by war and terror, with well over 100,000 deaths, and any remaining radical, secular ‘networks of outrage and hope being squeezed between the rival butchers of the Assad regime on the one hand and the Islamic State on the other. Libya and Iraq are also disintegrating amidst civil war. As for Egypt, the ‘revolution planned on Facebook, organised on Twitter and broadcast to the world via Youtube’ (Mason) has been defeated by older social forces, first the Muslim Brotherhood, then the military. The future of Egypt was decided not in Tahrir but in the streets around the Raaba mosque where up to a thousand Muslim Brotherhood supporters were killed by the army in August 2013.

The latest manifestation of the politics of the square, in Ukraine’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti in February 2014, might have toppled a government but it also unleashed armed nationalist forces on both sides and sparked a war in which thousands have died so far. For the first time since 1945, armoured vehicles flying nazi symbols are openly operating in Europe (‘Ukraine crisis: the neo-Nazi brigade fighting pro-Russian separatists’, Telegraph, 11 August 2014). Meanwhile in Western Europe there has been a rise in anti-semitic attacks and a growth in support for right wing parties such as the National Front in France and the UK Independence Party.

The movements of the squares did of course have some impact. They demonstrated a refusal to leave politics in the hands of elites and ‘experts’ and served warning to dictators everywhere that they could not expect to die in power. Those participating in their ‘Hundreds of thousands… now have direct experience of self-organisation, collective action, and human solidarity. This makes it almost impossible to go back to one’s previous life and see things the same way’ (Graeber, ‘The Democracy Project: a history, a crisis, a movement’, 2012). But the techno-utopianism that imagines that new communicative tools can solve old political problems seems increasingly out of step with reality.

In the remainder of this text I will look at some of the origins of these hopes, and the early experience of their practical application through a brief ‘archaeology of the radical internet’.

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Birth of the European Counter Network

The World Wide Web was launched in 1993, but for twenty years before there had been a gradual extension of networks enabling computers to communicate with each other – or more properly for people to communicate with each other through networked computers. The early days of the internet involved US Government computer networks but by the late 1980s these had expanded to include academic institutions and then the first commercial internet service providers. NGOs, including environmental, peace and human rights organisations, were increasingly linked up through the likes of PeaceNet and GreenNet (established in the USA and UK respectively in 1985).

Radical activists across Europe had also been discussing developing computer-to-computer communications since the mid-1980s, and in 1990 the European Counter Network (ECN) went live. Its first nodes were in Italy, with strong links to the autonomia movement and its radio stations such as Radio Sherwood (Padova) and Radio Onda Rossa (Rome).

Meanwhile in Holland at around the same time a couple of groups were exploring similar territory, with Black Star (Rotterdam) and Activist Press Service (Amsterdam) developing radical bulletin boards. The latter started out in 1990, with the aim of creating ‘a technical medium which can be used by activists and alternative media to spread their news around and to communicate with other groups’.

APS had its roots in the Dutch activist scene – ‘some of our backgrounds are squatters movement (in Dutch the word ‘kraken’ means both squatting and hacking!) and the anti-Shell campaign’. Politically they wished to engage a ‘wide spectrum’ of ‘radical non-parliamentarian movements’, arguing that to ‘create an electronic communication network for let’s say anarchists only… sounds like building a Highway in Europe and then say that only people who drive Volkswagen can use it’ (APS handout, 1992).

By July 1991, APS had begun to exchange information electronically on a fortnightly schedule with groups in Padova (Italy) and Wiesbaden (Germany) as part of the emerging ECN.

In June 1991, up to 1,000 people attended an International Meeting in Venice and Porto Maghera to ‘Build a Europe of the Movements against the Europe of the Bosses’. Organised by activists around Radio Sherwood and the journal Autonomia, it included lively discussions on communications and the possibilities of computer networks.

From the start, there was a slippage between technical and political discourses. In the Italian scene in particular the network was theorised as not just a convenient tool for communication between traditional radical scenes but the basis for a different kind of movement. At the Venice meeting, ECN speakers ‘emphasised the politics of such networks – the rejection of any kind of Marxist-Leninist centralization and the point that the object was not just the circulation of information but the activities of autonomous subjects using the networks to link their struggles. The networks were treated less as technical means of social cooperation than as ways to facilitate the appropriation of these new means of production is already highly socialised’ (Report of meeting in ‘London Notes: autonomist magazine’, June 1992)

Many of the questions that have recurred in recent years were raised in these early discussions. ECN militants worried about ‘people being appropriated by the technology instead of appropriating the technology’ and there was some scepticism about the hackers of the Chaos Computer Club in Germany. As with ‘Anonymous’ and ‘Wikileaks’, the technical brilliance of hackers has not always been matched by political astuteness or consistency. There was also the question about whether to use ‘such capitalist networks as Bitnet and Internet’ or try to develop alternative technical networks.

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Rhetoric and reality: the experience of ECN London

The reality of early radical computer networks struggled to match some of the rhetoric. In 1992 I was involved with a group in establishing the London node of the European Counter Network, one of the first self-defined radical internet connections in Britain.

A group of us in London were already working on a radical information project using the older methods of post and print. The 56a Info Shop had been established in June 1991 in a squatted building near the Elephant and Castle, linking in with the international network of Info Shops and publishing the 56a Info Shop Bulletin. The aim was to circulate news about struggles from the UK and around the world, including strikes, squatting, prisoners’ revolts and anti-fascist movements. So the possibility of extending this through emerging computer networks was a natural progression.

Through a Dutch squatter involved with the radical NN magazine, who had previously lived in Brixton, I went to Amsterdam and visited APS, picking up floppy discs and advice. A connection with ECN in Italy was likewise made through Italian squatters in London. We set up our first modem in an office upstairs in the 121 Centre, the squatted anarchist centre in Railton Road (later home too to the Dead by Dawn nights launched by Praxis records and others).

The technology was primitive to say the least. This was pre-WWW – there was no homepage from which other pages could be followed through hypertext links. All the content was in ASCII format (i.e. just basic text characters with no graphics), and the most that could be accessed automatically was a simple text bulletin board from which material could be selected. Our early connections with the Italian comrades were even more basic. We only had one phone line, so we used to phone them up, tell them we were going to connect our modem, then disconnect our phones and connect our computers. We would then exchange packets of information.

So by summer 1992 we were calling ourselves ECN (London) and regularly sending information to the network, such as reports of the UK miners’ struggles and Waterloo station anti-fascist clashes of that year. We also invited other groups to send us their news and texts in electronic format – we forwarded material to the network from the likes of Bad Attitude (feminist paper), Counter-Information (Scottish-based radical news zine), Anarchist Black Cross (prisoners news) and CARF (Campaign against racism and fascism). We would sometimes see some of this material reproduced in movement publications from Italy and elsewhere so knew it was being read and used.

Given that so few people had direct access to information via electronic communication, any useful information had to be re-presented in print if it was to reach people. In March 1993, the 56a Info Bulletin was renamed Contraflow, published by ECN London, and we included news received via the network as well as from the exchange of radical publications with groups around the world. Distribution was increased from 300 to 1000, via radical bookshops, squats, community centres and mail.

Participation in an international initiative certainly felt like a step forward for us, although its direct impact on our organising was probably fairly limited. We did do some activity around the ‘500 years of resistance’ counter movement to the 1992 Columbus celebrations, using material sourced from ECN/APS. But for the most part it was our real connections through friends and comrades moving between social centres, festivals, parties and protests internationally that was more significant. And that was the way we liked it – as we wrote in the ‘Contraflow’ (March 1993): ‘Our nightmare is for ECN to become a sort of simulated international radical movement where all communication is mediated by machines and in which information endlessly circulates between computers without being put back into a human context’.

Having fairly swift access to news of struggles elsewhere was useful, but even with the limited supply we soon came up against the issue of how to deal with the surplus of useless information. It sometimes felt like we had to wade through lots of verbose communiqués to find any actual news…

To a certain extent this process helped demystify movements in other places. Pre-internet, movements like the Autonomen in Germany or Autonomia in Italy were largely known to us through their combative reputation and a small number of translated texts. In some ways closer communication made us realize that we had less in common than we thought with some parts of these movements. For instance, while we had shared concerns about squatting and militant anti-fascism we had not fully appreciated the third worldist/anti-imperialist stance that led some to cheer lead all kinds of what we saw as Stalinist and nationalist rackets and regimes. The lowest point for this came during an International Info Shop Gathering in London (1994) when we were horrified to hear people canvassing for attendance at a ‘solidarity camp’ in Gadaffi’s Libya!

More positively, the growth of the internet was to allow a proliferation of different voices from within these and other movements, as the control of political perspectives by the editors of newspapers and journals was undermined by the direct access to means of communication for almost anybody.

Then and Now

Of course technology has developed tremendously in the past 20 years, with the kid on the bus having access to more processing power via their phone than the entire ECN in its early days. An increase in the speed of circulation of information has certainly occurred, but in that respect radical movements have just conformed to the prevailing acceleration of social life. Whatever benefits this may have brought in terms of communication and mobilisation, the need for the slower, reflective process of critical thought and discussion remains. The sub-political fragments of half digested conspiracy theories and empty poses that clog up timelines on Facebook and Twitter suggest that there’s still plenty of thinking to be done…

Another concern is that radical internet networks have been the focus of police and security service attention from the start. A German police assessment in March 1992 noted that on the basis of the June 1991 international meeting in Venice, ‘anti-fascist organisations have reached a new and higher level of professionalism. Clear indication of this comes from the formation of the European Counter Network (ECN), an on-line network of computers which circulates left-wing information’ (Kriminalistik, German police review, March 1992, cited in London Notes, June 1992). Over the years ECN has faced various forms of repression. In 1995, equipment was destroyed during a police raid on the Leoncavallo social centre in Milan, while in 2012 a server in New York used by ECN was seized by the US Federal Authorities. Similar problems have faced similar projects, most recently in summer 2014 when Bristol Indymedia closed down after police investigating arson attacks secured a court order to access its server.

ECN decided early on that this was unavoidable, declaring itself ‘a public secret… In this age of computerised control of society, a clandestine computer network would be both unthink-
able and unrealisable – but it would not even be desirable politically; our greatest defence is a maximum of socialisation and of diffuse activation of social subjects. The strength of ECN is precisely its proliferation: as a symptom and vector of its ability to do damage to systems of social control in our society’ (ECN, ‘Get Connected’, London Notes, June 1992).

What may have been underestimated, including by those theorising about the emancipatory potential of the internet in the last few years, is the sheer extent of the surveillance of regular internet and telephone communications by state agencies across the world. The revelations of Edward Snowden and others have exposed how the very architecture of everyday communications is systematically used to monitor pretty much everybody. Basically whatever it is technically possible to do, they will do, whatever the law may say.

Hardt and Negri (‘Declaration’, 2012) are right that ‘Facebook, Twitter, the internet, and other kinds of communications mechanisms are useful, but nothing can replace the being together of bodies and the corporeal communication that is the basis of collective political intelligence and action. In all the occupations… the participants experienced the power of creating new political affects through being together.

The problem is that this ‘being together’ in itself has not proved sufficient either to begin to really change the conditions of life beyond the squares and occupations, or to prevent the initiative being seized back by reactionary social forces. Perhaps, as Endnotes (2013) argue, we live for the time-being in a ‘Holding Pattern’ of fragile crisis-management and deferred social contradictions, but meanwhile whole parts of the world drift into war and despair. And so I endlessly refresh the screen in the hope of better news to come…

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