To the Barricades
By J.D. TUCCILLE
mostNEWYORK Senior Editor
n the old Soviet bloc, the possession of photocopiers was strictly controlled. The keepers of public order feared that malcontents might poison the harmony of the state with silly ideas like ... well ... that people shouldn't be subject to Siberian hospitality for owning photocopiers. But even in countries with unstifled media, dissidents have trouble getting a hearing with journalists who've grown fat and happy with the powers-that-be. And whatever coverage a cause might draw is quickly lost in the next newsclip.
Is it any wonder that dissidents and agitators have taken to the Internet?
Of course, the Net is no substitute for grassroots work and 60 Minutes. The organizers of the Free Vietnam Alliance know that they reach little audience in barely wired Vietnam. But on the Web the Alliance can tweak the commissars, organize a network of pro-democracy organizations and raise funds for its projects — including contacting dissidents back home and broadcasting radio messages to the Vietnamese people. For the widest audience, information is presented in the languages of three of the past century’s ... umm ... redecorators of the Indochinese landscape: Vietnamese, English and French. And though the site is available around the world, it is based well beyond the reach of Hanoi.
Dissent isn't just a matter for museum-piece police states, though. Some sites exist as watchdogs over “free" nations. These sites flip self-important officials the electronic bird and defy some of the more obnoxious policies, laws and regulations.
Among such electronic activists is Pierre Lemieux, a Quebec-based economist and writer. Lemieux is unusual among online publishers in that he's had books published on economics and political theory, and has written for publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal to Le Figaro Economie. His site gathers together these writings (written with good grace and humor) and places them in context, so that his baiting of the Canadian tax authorities is seen along a continuum with his refusal to identify himself by Social Insurance number (the Canadian Social Security number) and his support for the right to keep and bear arms in a country that actively seeks to disarm its citizens.
“Soft tyranny,” he says, “is a universal fixture of our so-called free countries ... It's a universal battle against a universal tyrant. And the Web is just as if it had been designed for this ....
“Sometimes I feel that, since I created my Web site one and a half years ago, I have had more influence and made more contacts in the world than through the five books and the countless 'hard' articles I have published.”
Lemieux spices his site with photos of a “Beauty of the Month” that make politics much more fun than they have any right to be.
America, too, is blessed with dissenters, including one who is in some personal peril for his stance. Karl Kleinpaste is something of an Internet pioneer — he wrote the anonymous server software that, after modification, was used by the late, lamented anon.penet.fi before that service folded under police pressure. (Anonymous remailers let people send e-mail ... well ... anonymously, and receive replies the same way — Big Brother tends to frown on such carryings-on. Anon.penet.fi was the most popular remailer before its recent demise.) While an accomplished programmer and computer professional, Kleinpaste is prone to the same errors as the rest of us when plumbing the mysteries of the 1040 form — especially in 1991, when, he says, “I did a Major Stupid.” Unlike most, though, Karl Kleinpaste actually went out and did his research, and though he doesn’t oppose all taxes, he believes that he has legal grounds for challenging the income tax.
“I have a position on these matters that what I'm doing has the form of civil disobedience — even though I've found the position I hold to be actually legally defensible — and that by using such a form, I'm obligated to get some public view of my activities, which of course is why I put it all up on the Web pages.”
On his site, Kleinpaste has published a full record of his position, of his correspondence with the IRS and a warning against tussling with the tax man without proper preparation. Good advice considering the federales’ uneven record on listening to reasonable debate, but Karl is still free and documenting his travails on the Web.
And as Karl goes, so go many online activists — fighting the good fight with Web sites that function as combination phone banks and samizdat presses. Most would labor in anonymity, waiting for the occasional news snippet if technology hadn’t tossed up such a powerful publication tool as the Internet.
And they don’t even have to find toner for those clunky Soviet photocopiers.