- The Washington Times - Monday, August 9, 2004

The earnestly unscrubbed protester of days past surely would not recognize his cell-phone toting, digitally aware counterpart today.

The activist arsenal now includes balloons outfitted with tiny cameras that, when floated over the protesting masses, can take a shot of the crowd, download the image to a software program and provide a head count.

Global-positioning satellites can tell parading demonstrators where the police are, so marchers can avoid the traps that officers set in order to contain protest.

And 261 protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Boston were signed on to a free text-messaging service via their cell phones that told them where and when to gather.

Demonstrators are preparing to use the technology for their protests and rallies during the Republican National Convention when it convenes later this month in New York. Authorities expect about 100,000 demonstrators to parade the streets during the four-day event.

“This is a new arms race,” said Howard Rheingold, author of “Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. “The police have always had the power in these situations, with two-way radios and more advanced communications to control demonstrators and to fight terrorists,” Mr. Rheingold said. “But their technology is no longer exclusive.”

In the past four years, the burgeoning availability of two-way pagers, Blackberry e-mailers and wireless laptops have made the world an easier place in which to communicate.

At the same time, these developments are helping street protesters organize and act worldwide.

A text-messaging campaign in the Philippines fueled the protests against President Joseph Estrada in 2001 that resulted in his removal. In March, activists in Spain turned to text-messaging and e-mail groups to organize gatherings before elections, despite a moratorium on demonstrations in the 24 hours preceding the balloting.

“The two parts of technology that lower the threshold for activism and technology is the Internet and the mobile phone,” Mr. Rheingold said. “Anyone who has a cause can now mobilize very quickly.”

The man behind the text service used in Boston is John Henry, who registered his Web site, txtmob.com, a little more than a week before the convention

To access the messaging groups, users sign in with a password and plug in their cell-phone number and carrier in order to view a list of groups to join.

Some are private, which means they are screened by the administrator and usually limited to invitees. Others are public, and anyone can receive their messages.

“I think of this as a piece of infrastructure to share,” said Mr. Henry, who describes himself as a former protester in his early 30s. He designed the service for the convention, but it was not made public until after the event in order to prevent police from accessing it.

For the upcoming convention, “I would assume police are on some of those lists, and I am sure that protesters are aware of that as well, so they can watch what they broadcast in certain groups,” he said.

For street protesters, the txtmob.com concept of issuing messages to direct a group is new, said Christopher Csikszentmihalyi, assistant professor of media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“This kind of thing can help those on the street,” said Mr. Csikszentmihalyi, who has done technology work for social activists. “Right now, police always try … [to] take out the person with the bullhorn or a walkie-talkie so that they can disrupt communication between the activists. These new technologies can change things as far as organization.”

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