Telecommunications For Nonviol Essay, Research Paper
Telecommunications for Nonviolent Struggle
Telecommunications can play a vital role in nonviolent resistance to
aggression or repression, as shown by numerous historical examples. Yet
there has been no systematic development of telecommunications research,
policy or training for this purpose.
We interviewed a number of experts in telecommunications to learn how these
technologies could be used in nonviolence struggle. We report our general
findings and list a series of recommendations for use and design of
telecommunications in nonviolent struggle. This pilot project reveals the
radical implications of orienting telecommunications for nonviolent rather
than violent struggle.
Communications are absolutely crucial to nonviolent struggle against
aggression and repression. The following cases illustrate some of the roles
* In April 1961, there was a military coup in Algeria, then a part of France,
by generals who opposed de Gaulle’s willingness to negotiate with Algerian
rebels. Popular opposition in France to the coup led de Gaulle to make a
media announcement calling for resistance. In Algeria, many pilots opposed
to the coup simply flew their aircraft out of the country. Many soldiers
hindered operations, for example by “misplacing” orders and communications;
others simply stayed in their barracks. The coup collapsed within four days
without a shot being fired against it (Roberts, 1975).
* In August 1968, Czechoslovakia was invaded by troops from the Soviet Union
and four other Warsaw Pact states. The reason was the liberalisation of
communist rule in Czechoslovakia, threatening ruling elites in Moscow. There
was no resistance to the invasion from Czechoslovak military forces, nor from
the West. But there was an amazing spontaneous nonviolent resistance
(Windsor and Roberts, 1969).
Many of the invading soldiers had been told that they were there to smash a
capitalist takeover. When told the truth by Czechoslovak people, many became
unreliable and were transferred out of the country within a few days. They
were replaced by troops from the Soviet far east who did not speak Russian.
This shows the crucial importance of knowing the language of the aggressor
The radio network was crucial to the resistance (Hutchinson, 1969). The
network permitted simultaneous broadcasting from the same frequency from
different locations. This meant that when Soviet troops tracked down and
closed one transmitter, another immediately took over. The radio announcers
announced strikes, recommended using nonviolent methods only, and provided
information about troop movements, impending arrests and licence numbers of
KGB cars. Jamming equipment being brought in by the Soviet military was
delayed by railway workers. The radio broadcasts made this the first
European invasion exposed to intense publicity.
In the circumstances, the resistance was remarkably effective in frustrating
the Soviet political aim of setting up a puppet government within a short
time. The active phase of the resistance lasted just a week, but it was not
until April 1969 that a puppet government was installed.
* Indonesian military forces invaded the former Portuguese colony of East
Timor in 1975. Their occupation led to the deaths of perhaps a third of the
population through killings and starvation. By cutting off communications to
the outside world, outrage over this repression was minimised. The
Australian government aided in this communications blockade by shutting down
a short-wave transmitter in the Northern Territory.
In November 1991, a massacre of nonviolent protesters in Dili, the capital of
East Timor, rekindled international concern over the Indonesian occupation.
This killing attracted attention because of the presence of foreign observers
and videotapes of the killings, illustrating the importance of communications
in generating opposition to repression.
* In Fiji in 1987 there were two military coups. Because Fiji has numerous
small islands, short-wave radios are a standard means of communication.
Therefore, it was impossible to cut off communication with the outside world.
Wide publicity about the coups led to international protest, bans by some
trade unions on goods shipments, and a dramatic decline in tourism, a major
export earner for Fiji (Martin, 1988).
* In 1989, Chinese troops massacred hundreds of pro-democracy protesters in
Beijing. In the aftermath, the Chinese government tried to cut off
telecommunications to other countries. But fax machines continued to
operate, providing information to outsiders and enabling informed overseas
protests. When the Chinese government publicised a telephone number for
reporting of “dissident elements,” this information was leaked overseas, and
people from around the world jammed the number by making continual calls,
preventing it from being used for its original purpose.
* The Soviet coup in August 1991 failed, in part, due to lack of control over
telecommunications. Yeltsin’s supporters got out their basic message -
refuse to cooperate with the coup leaders and defend the Russian parliament -
using radio, faxes, computer networks and leaflets.
These examples show the crucial importance of communications in nonviolent
resistance to aggression and repression. Killings of unarmed civilians can
generate enormous outrage, both in local populations and around the world.
By contrast, killings of guerrilla fighters gain relatively little attention
- violence against violence is seen as legitimate, even when the sides are
But killing or beating of civilians has to be publicised. If repression is
carried out in secret, there is little impact. Communications and publicity
are vital. Communication of accurate information is a key to the effective
work of Amnesty International.
Social defence is nonviolent community resistance to aggression as an
alternative to military defence. Instead of having an army, a community
would oppose aggression using demonstrations, fasts, refusals to obey,
strikes, boycotts, sit-ins and other types of nonviolent action. This form
of defence also goes by the names nonviolent defence, civilian defence and
At first glance, it seems implausible that social defence could possibly work
against a well-armed aggressor. As the above examples show, the use of only
nonviolent methods can be very effective in undermining the commitment of
soldiers. Most soldiers under military dictatorships and authoritarian
regimes are conscripts who don’t want to go to war. When they encounter an
“enemy” who doesn’t use violence, it becomes much more difficult for them to
use violence. The thing to remember is that armies can succeed only if
soldiers are willing to follow orders.
There is not enough space here to begin to discuss the arguments for and
against social defence. (Some good sources are Boserup and Mack, 1974;
Galtung, 1976; Roberts, 1967; Sharp, 1990). Suffice it to say that we
believe social defence is worthy of further investigation and testing. Our
project is part of that process.
Schweik Action Wollongong is a small voluntary group of people who work on
projects relating to social defence. The group is named after Hasek’s
fictional character the good soldier Schweik, who created havoc in the
Austrian army during World War One by pretending to be extremely stupid
(Hasek, 1974). Various members of the group are also active in other social
movements as well as holding down regular jobs. We keep in regular contact
with like-minded individuals and groups throughout Australia and overseas.
Our project on telecommunications and social defence commenced in mid 1990
and followed on from a preliminary investigation into the Australian postal
system. We have focussed on this area because the connection between
communication and social defence is a vital one.
We interviewed a diverse range of people from the areas of satellite
communications, computer engineering, ham radio, computer systems development
and community radio. We started by interviewing people we knew and branched
out as we asked the people interviewed who else we should be contacting. The
interviews were usually conducted by two members of our group, one of whom
took notes. The notes were written up and circulated amongst members of the
group. Care was taken to ensure the anonymity of the interviewees.
From our point of view, the interviews had a very useful twofold purpose.
Not only were they a valuable and interesting source of information on
telecommunications capabilities, but they also allowed us to talk to other
people about social defence. In this way the interviews were a goal in
themselves, namely raising the issue of nonviolent struggle, as well as a
method for gaining information about telecommunications.
We describe some of our main findings according to the type of technology
The telephone system is a wonderful means for mobilising against repression.
It is readily available to nearly everyone, requires very little knowledge or
training to use, and can be used to contact virtually any part of the world.
Most importantly, it is a network means for communication. Anyone can
contact almost anyone and there is no central control or censorship over what
people say on the phone.
There are two important limitations to the telephone. First, it can readily
be tapped, and individuals usually don’t know when this is happening.
Tapping can do little to stop a large-scale opposition, because there must
ultimately be people who listen to tapped conversations. If there are enough
people in the resistance, the regime can monitor only a small fraction of
relevant calls. Tapping in this situation is effective through its
psychological intimidation of callers who think someone is listening to their
A simple way to get around tapping is to use public telephones, or simply a
friend’s telephone. For answering of phones, some of the systems which
forward a call to another number are useful: the location of the person
answering the phone is not readily known to the caller (or someone listening
in). Also worth considering, as preparation for emergency situations, are
machines that change the pitch and vocal quality of a voice, and encryption
technology (which puts the message into code).
The second important limitation of the telephone system is that it can be cut
off selectively or entirely. This can be used against the regime or the
resistance, depending on loyalties of technicians on the inside. Generally,
the resistance would be wise to keep the telephone system operating. For
that matter, any modern industrial society depends on telephones for everyday
functioning. So it is unlikely that the entire system would be cut off
except for short times, such as the aftermath of a coup or massacre.
Resisters should build links with technical workers to ensure that the chance
of this is minimised.
As telephone systems become more computerised, the possibilities for central
authorities to monitor calls or cut off certain numbers increases. These
developments are making telephones less valuable for nonviolent struggle.
Fax is an extension of the telephone system to printed documents. All the
same considerations apply, except that documents received are often available
to anyone who happens to be around. Faxes with security codes overcome this
problem. (This is similar to the lack of security in telephone answering
machines.) Fax machines are much less common than telephones and require a
bit of training, but are basically easy to use. Using faxes is much better
when lengthy or complex information needs to be sent out.
Computer networks are excellent for person-to-person communication, but can
also be used to send messages to several addresses at once, or put material
on a computer bulletin board for all to read. They have the same limitations
as the telephone system, namely the potential for being monitored or cut off
by a master user (the person who controls the system and knows all the
Unlike telephones, computers are not so easy to use and are available to only
a small fraction of the population, being relatively expensive. Computers
are becoming cheaper, more widely available and more user-friendly each year,
and will undoubtedly play an increasing role in communication in crisis
In the case of emergency, it would be advantageous to be able to run computer
networks on a different basis. For example, the master user’s power to shut
down or monitor accounts could be terminated. Such a change could be
programmed to occur, for example, whenever a specified number of users
inserted a special command within a certain time interval. Methods for doing
this, and their implications, remain to be studied.
Many computer networks could be disrupted by turning off a single key
machine. To reduce this vulnerability, there could be a duplicate site as a
Computers have the capacity to store vast quantities of information, and this
leads to new considerations. Some databases – for example, containing
information on social critics – would be sought by a regime. One possibility
would be to have plans to hide, encrypt or destroy sensitive information in
case of emergency.
Short-wave radio is another excellent network form of telecommunications. It
can be used to talk person-to-person across the globe. Furthermore, it
operates as a stand-alone system, so that the plug cannot be pulled from any
Calls on short-wave can be overheard by others with suitable equipment; as in
the case of telephone, the more people who use the medium, the less the risk
to any one. The location of short-wave transmitters can be pinpointed, but
the transmission site can readily be moved. An ideal way to ensure continued
international communications in a crisis would be to have a short-wave system
in every home, plus many additional public systems for anyone’s use.
A combination of short-wave transmission and computer data produces packet
radio, in which packets of data are transmitted. These transmissions cannot
be listened in on, though they could be deciphered with special equipment.
Packet transmissions can be sent up to amateur radio satellites and broadcast
down to receivers later, even halfway around the world. Combined with
encryption, this provides an extremely safe and secure method of sending
masses of information.
The main disadvantage of short-wave radio is the limited availability of the
technology and knowledge of how to use it.
CB radio is similar to short-wave radio, except for a much more restricted
Television and mainstream radio are much less useful against a repressive
regime. Indeed, they are prime targets for takeover. The main reason is
that a few people control the content and the transmissions; everyone else
consumes the message. In this situation, the loyalty of both technicians and
broadcasters is crucial. If stations are taken over, perhaps the best
counter move would be for technicians to cause faults hindering transmission.
But this cannot be the basis for a programme of resistance, since immense
pressures can be brought against recalcitrant workers, or new compliant ones
With some advance planning, a takeover could be delayed and hindered for at
least days or weeks, if not resisted indefinitely. But often the threat is
not immediately recognised by all workers, so it can be difficult to obtain
agreement for such action.
Community radio stations, in which community groups control programme content
and participate in making station policy, are much better placed to continue
speaking out. Preparations for emergencies at such stations have the added
advantage of making many groups aware of the necessity for action in a
Illegal political radio broadcasts are also possible, and indeed clandestine
radio is a regular feature of resistance movements. Complications arise
because many clandestine broadcasters are run by government spy agencies,
which sometimes pose as resistance stations (Soley and Nichols, 1987).
In the longer term, it would be desirable to reduce dependence on the
broadcast technologies of television and mainstream radio and increase the
use of network technologies such as telephone.
It is important to remember that other forms of communications are important
besides telecommunications. This includes talking face-to-face, pamphlets,
graffiti, posters and the ordinary post. Telecommunications can aid
resistance to aggression and repression, but they are not essential.
It is also important to remember that technology is useless unless people are
willing to act. In this sense, politics, not technology, is the key to
Even with the present state of technology and people’s awareness,
telecommunications can be an important part of nonviolent resistance to
aggression and repression. But there are also many things which can improve
the effectiveness of telecommunications for this purpose. We list them here
under five categories.
1. Realising present capabilities. Right now, people are quite capable of
using existing telecommunications to oppose a repressive regime. People need
to be made aware of their own capabilities.
If the mass media of television and mainstream radio, plus large-circulation
newspapers, are taken over, there are still plenty of avenues for independent
communication. The telephone system is the most obvious. Only a small
fraction of phones can be effectively monitored, so most people can use them
without risk; they need to realise this. Those who are at risk should
realise the possibilities for using other phones.
Those who have access to computer networks should be made aware of the
potential for communication. This includes people working for banks,
universities and large companies. Similarly, short-wave operators should be
made aware of the crucial importance of their technology.
Technicians in vital areas – such as television broadcasting or computer
networks – need to be aware of how they can help maintain communications
among those resisting repression.
2. Learning to use existing technology. Most people know how to use
telephones. Many more can learn how to use fax machines and computer
networks. Run a practice session with friends.
An even greater commitment is needed to learn to use short-wave radio or
packet radio. It is important for these skills to be more widely shared in
3. Preparation. Knowing how to use telecommunications is one thing; being
prepared to use them in a crisis is another.
Having a procedure for telephoning people in an organisation or network is
important. The system should work even when some people are not available or
some telephone lines are interrupted.
Developing lists of fax numbers is another useful step. On a computer
network, lists of important contacts could be kept ready for an emergency,
and perhaps hidden in a coded group so that others cannot inspect the list.
Another important part of preparation is simulations. A group of people can
run a drill, testing out their communication systems in the face of a few
disrupters. In this way the strengths and weaknesses of different systems
can be tested. Also, people can become accustomed to acting promptly and
sensibly in a crisis situation.
4. Designing technology. Telecommunications systems should be designed to
provide maximum support to a popular, nonviolent resistance, and minimal help
to a repressive regime. This seems never to have been a consideration in
system design before, so it is difficult to be precise about what is
Is it possible to design a telephone system so that a speaker is warned if
another party is listening in on a call? Is it possible to design a
telephone system in which every phone can become – at least in emergencies -
as non-traceable as a public phone? Is it possible to design a telephone
system so that user-specified encryption is standard? Or in which encryption
is introduced across the system whenever a specified fraction of technicians
(or users) signal that this is warranted? Is “public key encryption,” or
some other system, the best way to support popular nonviolent struggles?
Is it possible to design a computer network so that the master user’s control
over accounts is overridden when a certain fraction of users demand this
within a specified period? Is it possible to design a computer system in
which encryption or hiding of data bases is automatic when there is
There are many other such questions. Perhaps, too, these are not the
appropriate questions. The most effective design of a telecommunications
system to operate against a repressive regime will depend on practical tests
which cannot all be specified in advance. It is certainly the case that
there are a host of difficult and fascinating design problems.
It is important to remember that the design is not simply a technical issue,
since the most effective design depends on an assessment of people’s skills,
commitment and behaviour in a crisis situation. Good design will discourage
aggressors and encourage resistance. In this context, being seen to be
effective is part of what makes a system effective in practice.
5. Organising society. Telecommunications is only one part of nonviolent
resistance to aggression. Other areas are important too. A decentralised,
self-reliant energy system – rather than dependence on supplies generated at
a few central facilities – will make a community much more capable of
resisting threats from an aggressor. Similarly, greater self-reliance in
transport and agriculture would aid a community in defending itself. Workers
should be able to take control of their workplaces and resist demands of a
All of this implies considerable changes in the organisation of society:
production and distribution of goods, services, transport, etc. In each
case, there are implications for communication. For example, if a regime
tried to repress dissent by interrupting deliveries of food, then it would be
vital to have reliable communication about available supplies, local gardens,
needy people, etc.
All of this would require preparation, organisation, commitment and training.
The development of telecommunications for nonviolent resistance to aggression
and repression depends on participation by many people to deal with local
situations. This is a preliminary report of our project. We welcome
comments, corrections and suggestions for future investigation, and hope to
hear about the ideas and experiences of others.
Schweik Action Wollongong
PO Box 492, Wollongong East
NSW 2520, Australia
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