The Internet for International Political and Social Protest: the case of Seattle


by Stefano Baldi

Previous sectionHome

Information and Misinformation

The protesters used the Internet to publish information about their opposition to the WTO. The "Top 10 Reasons to Oppose the World Trade Organization", typical accusations against the WTO explaining the reasons for the demonstration, was published on the "Global Exchange" website at:

The WTO decided to react to what they considered a demagogic attack, with a counterattack. Therefore the WTO provided its own views concerning the ten points under the header "Criticism, yes … misinformation, no!" The WTO website includes links to a number of critical sites so that users of the WTO site from around the world can see the differing opinions for themselves. At the same time, the WTO attempted to discredit those accusations which they considered to be based on incorrect information or downright falsehoods.

Table 1 is a scheme of the two different positions (protesters and WTO) regarding the ten points. Both positions have been published on the Internet.

Table 1 - Comparison of Protesters' and WTO's Positions

Protesters’ Position

WTO response

The WTO only serves the interests of multinational corporations

The WTO is not a democratic institution, and yet its policies impact all aspects of society and the planet. The WTO rules are written by and for corporations with inside access to the negotiations. For example, the US Trade Representative relies on its 17 "Industry Sector Advisory Committees" to provide input into trade negotiations. Citizen input by consumer, environmental, human rights and labor organizations is consistently ignored. Even requests for information are denied, and the proceedings are held in secret.


1. The WTO is as democratic as its member governments; and between the members it is ultra-democratic because decisions are taken by consensus — all members have to be persuaded.

2. The rules are written by member governments, no one else has access to the negotiations. However, governments, which are elected democratically by their citizens, do take into account the views of various groups in their societies. How they do that is up to them and their citizens. Governments regularly cite pressure from consumer, environmental, human rights and labour organizations, as well as business. The structure of negotiations also helps governments strike a more equitable balance between various interest groups over a broad range of issues. Before they take effect, WTO rules and agreements are approved by all national parliaments.

3. An immense amount of information is available to the public. The WTO website currently contains over 60,000 official documents available for the public in the three official languages (English, French and Spanish). The vast majority of official documents are published immediately. Few remain restricted, and even then for a maximum of about six months.

Some 200,000 visitors per month make use of the website. They download the equivalent of 80 million pages each month and browse other material explaining WTO affairs.

The Secretariat receives thousands of email and telephone enquiries per week — around 150 per week coming through the main mailbox. It replies to them all.

Press officers brief journalists almost daily to keep them informed of any developments in the discussions among governments.

NGOs are also routinely briefed. The WTO Secretariat organizes symposiums, seminars and other special events for NGOs. In 1999, the topics discussed included: the environment, development, investment, competition policy, and information technology.

The WTO is a stacked court

The WTO's dispute panels, which rule on whether domestic laws are "barriers to trade" and should therefore be abolished, consist of three trade bureaucrats who are not screened for conflict of interests. For example, in the tuna/dolphin case that Mexico filed against the US, which forced the US to repeal its law that barred tuna from being caught by mile-long nets that kill hundreds of thousands of dolphins each year, one of the judges was from a corporate front group that lobbied on behalf of the Mexican government for NAFTA.


The WTO's dispute settlement procedures were agreed by all Member governments. They were not imposed on anyone.

1. Dispute panels rule on whether countries break agreements they have made with each other in the WTO — not on "whether domestic laws are barriers to trade". Without these independent panels, countries could be tempted to settle trade conflict by force.

2. All three panellists are normally agreed by both sides in a dispute. In the minority of cases (15 out of almost 200 cases) when the two sides cannot agree, the WTO director-general selects the panellists.

3. The US was not required to repeal its law. Instead, Washington negotiated treaties with relevant trading partners.

[The tuna/dolphin case came under pre-1995 GATT procedures, not the post-1995 WTO dispute settlement process. The panel report was never adopted. The US and Mexico settled bilaterally "out of court"].

The WTO tramples over labor and human rights

The WTO has refused to address the impacts of free trade on labor rights, despite that fact that countries that actively enforce labor rights are disadvantaged by countries that consistently violate international labor conventions. Many developing countries, such as Mexico, contend that labor standards constitute a "barrier to free trade" for countries whose competitive advantage in the global economy is cheap labor. Potential solutions to labor and human rights abuses are blocked by the WTO, which has ruled that it is: 1) illegal for a government to ban a product based on the way it is produced (i.e. with child labor); and 2) governments cannot take into account the behaviour of companies that do business with vicious dictatorships such as Burma.


1. The "WTO" has not refused to address this issue. At their first ministerial meeting (Singapore, 1996), WTO members reaffirmed their commitment to core labour standards.

The WTO’s developing-country members resist including labour standards in WTO rules because: (a) they see it as a guise for protectionism in developed-country markets, a smokescreen for undermining the comparative advantage of lower-wage developing countries; and (b) they argue that better working conditions and improved labour rights arise through economic growth — sanctions imposed against countries with lower labour standards would merely perpetuate poverty and delay improvements in workplace standards.

In addition, to suggest that developed countries are handicapped because they enforce labour standards ignores the fact that developed countries are highly successful in exporting — they have by far the largest share of export markets.

2. No one has argued in the WTO that "labour standards constitute a ‘barrier to free trade’ ".

3. The WTO has never ruled on child labour because the issue has never come up for a ruling. Countries’ efforts to deal with child labour problems have never been challenged in the WTO.

4. The WTO made no such ruling over trade with Myanmar (Burma). The WTO agreements (GATT Article 21) say countries have the right to follow UN decisions, which was the case when sanctions were imposed against South Africa under apartheid.

The WTO is destroying the environment

The WTO is being used by corporations to dismantle hard-won environmental protections, who call them barriers to trade. In 1993 the very first WTO panel ruled that a regulation of the US Clean Air Act, which required both domestic and foreign producers alike to produce cleaner gasoline, was illegal. Recently, the WTO declared illegal a provision of the Endangered Species Act that requires shrimp sold in the US to be caught with an inexpensive device that allows endangered sea turtles to escape. The WTO is currently negotiating an agreement that would eliminate tariffs on wood products, which would increase the demand for timber and escalate deforestation.


The WTO panel ruled in 1996. It did not rule that the US Clean Air Act was illegal. It ruled that the act should be applied equally to domestic and foreign producers alike, and should not be more lenient towards domestic producers.

2. The "shrimp-turtle" panel and the appeals body stated clearly that the US can pursue the protection of endangered turtles. They did not rule that the provision of the Endangered Species Act is illegal. They ruled, among other things, that the US government was discriminating against Asian suppliers and in favour of Caribbean suppliers.

3. In addition to the proposal to lower tariffs on wood products, there are proposals which include environmental conservation issues. The outcome depends entirely on what governments are willing to do.

The WTO is killing people

The WTO's fierce defence of intellectual property rights-patents, copyrights and trademarks-comes at the expense of health and human lives. The organization's support for pharmaceutical companies against governments seeking to protect their people's health has had serious implications for places like sub-Saharan Africa, where 80 percent of the world's new AIDS cases are found. The US government, on behalf of US drug companies, is trying to block developing countries' access to less expensive, generic, life-saving drugs. For example, the South African government has been threatened with a WTO challenge over proposed national health laws that would encourage the use of generic drugs, ban the practice of manufacturers offering economic incentives to doctors who prescribe their products and institute "parallel importing," which allows companies to import drugs from other countries where the drugs are cheaper.


1. The need to protect health and human life is built into the WTO agreement on intellectual property rights.

2. The organization cannot support pharmaceutical companies against governments because the WTO is run only by governments, and decisions in favour of or against a member government are reached only by consensus among those governments.

3. There is nothing in the WTO intellectual property agreement which prevents or discourages the use of generic drugs. (Similarly, requiring a government to offer patent protection for new inventions does not mean the government has to allow the invention to be used.)

4. Totally false, such a ban would not violate WTO agreements.

5. Parallel importing (and compulsory licensing) are clearly allowed under the WTO's intellectual property agreement, particularly in national emergencies. South Africa has cited these rules.

(Some see this kind of argument as a benefit of the WTO — smaller countries can use the WTO's rules to defend themselves against pressure from the more powerful. They can also use the rules to save lives.)

While opinions differ about some of the details — e.g. on compulsory licensing and what developing countries should be allowed to do for their healthcare needs — there is no question that patent protection for pharmaceuticals has helped with the discovery of new drugs and has therefore helped to save lives.

The US adoption of the WTO was undemocratic

The WTO was established out of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiations. On December 1, 1994, Congress approved GATT under Fast Track during a lame duck session of Congress. Fast Track limits public debate by not allowing amendments. The approval of the WTO required entire sections of US laws to be rewritten to conform with the WTO rules, similar to the way that treaties often redefine how the US will interact with other states. Had the agreement been voted on as a treaty, requiring a two-thirds majority in the Senate, it would have been defeated.


How countries ratify the WTO agreements is an internal issue.

The WTO cannot comment on the process in each country, and it cannot speculate on the result of a vote in different circumstances.

In addition, certain principles apply to all countries:

1. There was a lot of democratic public debate around the world during the almost seven years (1986-94) of the negotiations, including in the United States. The pressure of public opinion determined countries' positions in the negotiations.

The final ratification period, from the signing in April 1994 to December 1994, was no more than that: a final period of a long negotiation that included more than 100 countries, not only the US.

2. All countries had the option to accept or reject the agreement. However, by 1994 any attempt to amend the agreement would have meant reopening the negotiation which had already taken seven and a half years. It would probably have killed the agreement. WTO member governments and parliaments decided that would have been the worst option.

Agreement was reached because all participating countries believed they had reached the point where on balance the benefits outweighed the discomfort, both politically and economically. Such a bargain could not have been struck if countries were allowed individually to pick and choose only the bits they preferred.

3. All countries had to face changes that were domestically unpopular. But they considered this to be outweighed by the benefits of the package. In many cases, other countries had to accept changes demanded by the United States.

The WTO undermines local development and penalizes poor countries

The WTO's "most favoured nation" provisions requires all WTO member countries to treat each other equally and to treat all corporations from these countries equally regardless of their track record. Local policies aimed at rewarding companies who hire local residents, use domestic materials, or adopt environmentally sound practices are essentially illegal under the WTO. Under the WTO rules, developing countries are prohibited from following the same polices that developed countries pursued, such as protecting nascent, domestic industries until they can be internationally competitive.


Most-favoured-nation treatment means non-discrimination between countries. Equal treatment is an overwhelmingly important and useful principle for both fairness and efficiency.

1. Most-favoured-nation does not mean treating all corporations equally. A government can reward or penalize corporations, but the same criteria for doing this must normally apply to all foreign companies. (There are some constraints on what those rules might say.)

2. Policies for hiring local staff, using domestic materials or encouraging sound environmental practices are definitely not outlawed. However, countries have negotiated terms for allowing their professionals and other workers to work abroad. If they allow foreign workers in, it is because they want to learn from foreign expertise or they want their workers to be able to work abroad in exchange. This is not a principle of WTO law, but something countries (developed and developing alike) want to negotiate with each other.

3. The value of "infant-industry" protection is debated. However, developing countries are given longer timetables for implementing many important provisions and commitments precisely in order to allow them to protect nascent industries if they want to.

The WTO is increasing inequality

Free trade is not working for the majority of the world. During a the most recent period of rapid growth in global trade and investment--1960 to 1998--inequality worsened both internationally and within countries. The UN Development Program reports that the richest 20 percent of the world's population consume 86 percent of the world's resources while the poorest 80 percent consume just 14 percent. WTO rules have hastened these trends by opening up countries to foreign investment and thereby making it easier for production to go where the labor is cheapest and most easily exploited and environmental costs are low. This pulls down wages and environmental standards in developed countries who are having to compete globally.


This is an analytical question, unlike the previous points which are factual errors, except that no one pretends the present WTO system is "free trade".

1. All the evidence points to trade making a major contribution to increasing standards of living and to lifting people out of poverty. The majority would almost certainly be poorer if there had been no trade liberalization and no international trade rules.

2. Has trade worsened inequality? This is debatable, and the economic evidence is complex - inequality can rise and fall as countries go through different levels of development. However, even if the world were more equal without trade, it would almost certainly be poorer, and most of the poor would almost certainly be poorer.

3. Trade liberalization and investment liberalization are not the same thing.

However, arguing against investment creating jobs in poor countries amounts to arguing that the poorest people in the world should be kept poor.

There is also plenty of evidence to support the argument that trade, by raising incomes, helps poor countries find the resources to protect their environment.

(There is also a contradiction in the logic of the critics' argument here. If trade does encourage companies to migrate to low-wage countries and to pull down wages in developed countries, then it must be reducing inequality. As always, the reality is much more complex because it depends on a lot of factors such as productivity, technology, etc, so investment and trade can mean gains both for those in developed and developing countries.)

The WTO undermines national sovereignty

By creating a supranational court system that has the power to economically sanction countries to force them to comply with its rulings, the WTO has essentially replaced national governments with an unelected, unaccountable corporate-backed government. For the past nine years, the European Union has banned beef raised with artificial growth hormones. The WTO recently ruled that this public health law is a barrier to trade and should be abolished. The EU has to rollback its ban or pay stiff penalties. Under the WTO, governments can no longer act in the public interest.


The WTO dispute settlement system’s rulings are based on agreements that all parties in a dispute have agreed to.

The sanctions are not imposed by the WTO, but by the country winning the case. The sanctions imposed on the EU were imposed voluntarily by the elected national government of the United States, within WTO rules and procedures. The case was not initiated by the WTO (the WTO does not have the power to do that) but by the US and Canadian governments.

(In fact, the US first imposed $100 million in annual sanctions against the EU for the beef-hormone ban in 1989, six years before the WTO came into being.)

2. The WTO did not say the law should be abolished. The ruling said the ban (not the law) violated WTO agreements which the EU itself negotiated and signed. The EU had the option of providing sufficient evidence of health risk to support the ban, or removing the ban. It chose to supply the evidence, but within the agreed time-limit it was unable to do so and US sanctions were imposed. The EU still says it will supply the evidence. Meanwhile, the ban has not been lifted. No one has been forced to do anything.

3. This is completely false. The agreements include countless provisions allowing governments to take public interest into account.

The agreements are also the result of negotiations in which all governments pursued what they saw as the interests of their public. If their view of public interest changes, they are completely free to seek to amend the agreements. That has already happened in eight successive trade rounds under GATT, with the ninth approaching after the Seattle Ministerial Conference.

The tide is turning against free trade and the WTO!

There is a growing international backlash against the WTO and the process of corporate globalization over which it presides.

Movement-building by coalitions such as People's Global Action against the WTO in Europe and the Citizen's Trade Campaign in the US are growing fast, as public support for corporate-managed free trade dwindles. Recent polls show that 58 percent of Americans agree that foreign trade has been bad for the US economy, and 81 percent of Americans say that Congress should not accept trade agreements that give other countries the power to overturn US laws. (Too late!). This is why tens of thousands of people from all walks of life will converge in Seattle Nov. 29-Dec. 4 to confront the World Trade Organization head on at its ministerial meeting. Join us!


People are free to have their own opinions. The WTO is at the centre of intense debate — among governments in the negotiating rooms (which is what the WTO is for), and among citizens out in the streets. That is healthy.

But in any proper debate, it is essential to get the facts right first. Organizations supplying information about the WTO have the responsibility to make sure they’ve got their facts right, too. Those making the accusations listed here have quite simply got their facts wrong.

Some protesters might believe there is a growing International backlash against the WTO. But the countries queuing up to join the WTO, from the most populous (China) and the largest physically (Russia) to tiny Andorra, are proof that a significant part of the world believe that their economic future lies in the WTO system. And opinion polls suggest that the public in the US and elsewhere are in favour of freer trade even if they have reservations about some aspects.

These points and counter-points demonstrate that the movements and organisations engaged in the protest succeeded in their objective of stimulating public debate on globalization and its effect on society and the planet. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of using inaccurate information or data to support critical positions is open for discussion.


Alternative Information

Protesters took full advantage of the opportunity to provide alternatives to the official information before and during the Seattle meeting. This information consisted not only of e-mail and web pages, but also included live broadcasting of the demonstrations through webcams located in different areas of the city. In fact, at the site it was possible to view up to nine live cameras at once. Radio transmissions over the Internet were also available to a potentially worldwide audience. At the site World Trade Watch radio ( five daily radio programmes concerning the meeting were broadcast from Seattle. The programmes consisted of reports from the field, lively in-studio discussions, interviews and other materials. Therefore any Internet user with an acceptable connection could easily listen to these programmes through the PC.

The Independent Media Center ( (Fig. 7) was set up by a series of organisations such as Free Speech TV, Deep Dish TV, Radio for Peace International, Paper Tiger TV, Free Radio Berkeley, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, Media Island International and many others. Sites like Independent Media Center allowed the anti-WTO groups to bypass mainstream media organisations which protesters considered to be controlled by the same "corporate interests" aligned with the WTO meeting. In face, the main criticism of all independent media was that what they defined as "corporate owned" mass media had ignored the public interest and colluded with the agenda of their multi-national owners.

Fig. 7 - Homepage of Independent Media Center (

The Independent Media Center site was used by media activists to post breaking news stories. All they had to do was go to the site, retrieve reports, photos, audio and video, and pass them on. The website also allowed activists anywhere in the world to post their own reports about WTO actions happening in their communities using simple online forms.

The Center was intended not only as a point of reference for sending information but also for gathering and redistributing it at a local level. For example, local activists in any country could get audio files from the website and rebroadcast them from local community and micro-radio stations. They were urged to include audio and video links to the Center’s site on their own websites, and to persuade others to do the same.



The protest in Seattle was not the first and will not be the last to be organised and supported through IT. In the future, large international organisations and governments will be confronted with new forms of protests. In fact, the manner of conducting social wars is changing and the term "infowar" now seems appropriate. The weapons and the consequences of this kind of "war" are not completely known yet. It is not surprising that the actions and counteractions resulting from this kind of war are unpredictable.

In protest carried out through the Internet, governments and international organisations are often at a disadvantage. This is due to the fact that they are structured as hierarchies; therefore their capacity to react to these electronic attacks is rather slow. Governments and international organisations should not underestimate the effects of "electronic protest". They should constantly monitor the activities and initiatives which take place "online". Most likely, large international events, such as G8 meetings and other high level political and economic summits, will be characterized by movements that will use IT to make their protest known worldwide.

It is now evident that a new means of disrupting the work of international organisations, if not society at large, has become visible. However, we should not forget that as is true for all technology, IT - as it relates to political action - has a double potential: for more democracy and wider information or for disinformation and mere disruption. The Seattle protest showed how independent movements run a risk of disseminating fake information or disinformation. Through the Internet such disinformation can be amplified and spread all over the world and become difficult to counterbalance. In order to ensure that IT will be put to good use, we should in any case become more aware of its characteristics and possibilities.

Despite the fact that Internet will make it easier and cheaper to coordinate widespread protests, nothing will ever replace the effectiveness of people protesting in the streets. But perhaps the most important long-term contribution of IT to protest is that it enables people all over the world to communicate and join forces to fight a common battle.



Jeanne Carstensen, "Civil Disobedience Comes to the Web" (

Stefan Wray, "Transforming Luddite Resistance into Virtual Luddite Resistance: Weaving A World Wide Web of Electronic Civil Disobedience", Earth First!, April 7, 1998.

Paul Van Slambrouck, "Newest Tool for Social Protest: The Internet", Christian Science Monitor, June 18, 1999.

Tim McGirk, "Wired For Warfare. Rebels and dissenters are using the power of the Net to harass and attack their more powerful foes", Time Special Report/The Communications Revolution/ Languages of Technology, October 11, 1999, Vol. 154, No. 15


Numerous websites, supported by hundreds of reporters, designers and programmers have covered every aspect of the Battle in Seattle, with humour, passion and insight. A selection of some of the best is listed here:

Other interesting links:

Previous sectionHome