Hacktivists launch virtual demo while streets blocked

UK protests lend a hand to demonstrators who can't get to American trade conference in Canada

A group of demonstrators in the UK are organising a "virtual sit-in" against the trade group Free Trade Area of Americas (FTAA) in protest of its promotion of economic globalisation and defiance of its attempts to hamper street protests.

According to the organisers -- the Electrohippies -- Internet action provides the only means to register their opposition to the FTAA and its policies during its conference in Quebec, which starts on Friday. The FTAA has gained police support to impose a 5km curfew zone around the conference in order to disrupt protests.

The FTAA is an organisation created to promote free trade across the Americas, although opponents claim that the group acts to defend the interests of the world's wealthiest nations and multinational corporations.

The Electrohippies are a group of anti-capitalist protestors based in Oxfordshire. They say their goal is to simulate a traditional sit-in by encouraging supporters to occupy as many pages belonging to the FTAA and its sponsors as possible. The group has created a page that will allow sympathetic visitors to simultaneously load up numerous sites connected with the FTAA, during the Quebec conference. After the event the Electrohippies will request server logs from the FTAA in order to show the numbers that have joined in with its action.

Paul Mobbs, a self proclaimed "hacktivist" who represents the group, says it is not trying to overload any of the FTAA's servers, just demonstrate opposition to its actions. "The intention is not to crash the sites, just to challenge them to hand over their logs, so that we can show how many people took part," he says.

Had the Electrohippies tried to launch a denial of service attack on FTAA sites, they could have found themselves classified as terrorists under the Terrorism Act 2000, which came into force in the UK in Febraury.

Mobbs says that the FTAA has taken considerable security measures to disrupt ground-level protests aimed at its conference and says that the Internet is the best means to simulate a virtual sit-in. "We were asked to do it by people in Quebec and, when we saw the lengths that the FTAA had gone to to keep people out, we decided to definitely do it."

According to Corporate Watch, a UK-based civil liberties group, organisations such as the FTAA are becoming increasingly tough on street protestors. "I think this is the exact same policy as other large organisations, such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) have," says a Corporate Watch spokeswoman. "There's a very clear trend for very heavy handed policing."

The Internet is becoming a growing platform for political demonstrators. During ongoing conflict in the Middle East, Israeli and Palestinian hackers have defaced political Web sites and sought to bring down opposing servers in parallel tit-for-tat cyberviolence.

Protestors are currently preparing to fill the streets of London in protest against capitalism on May Day, and some members of the police believe that hacking attempts on large corporations or government computer systems may also take place.

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