The World Bank recently cancelled its global economic development conference in Barcelona, preferring instead to host a virtual forum on the Internet. The move is a curious twist to the perception that the Internet is an inherently insecure medium. More importantly though, will the online format succeed?
The frightening trend of physical protesting at the events has driven orgainsers to explore other options. The protests, with motives deeply rooted in the issue of globalisation, have increasingly become violent. Perhaps the most vivid example was outside the World Bank’s Seattle event in 1999 where mass bloodshed broke out.
The World Bank’s Vice President for Europe, Jean-Francois Rischard said that if the event was to have taken place in Barcelona it would “completely lack the peaceful atmosphere we need for a debate like this.” Furthermore, he added that online conferences had a “great future.”
The “massive demonstrations by groups with diverse agendas” that Rischard referred to in his conference launch however, have planned to embark on a number of different online initiatives designed to impede the successful running of the conference. Explicit statements by protesters suggest that June 25 may play host to the most visible and politically calculated instance of online terrorism.
Greenpeace warned that it had over 100,000 operatives ready to launch denial of service attacks against the conference. In reality, numbers are irrelevant, with a small team of computer security experts able to take down the largest of sites. In February of 2000, a series of denial of service attacks were successfully launched on Yahoo!, eBay, Amazon.com, CNN and E*Trade with surprising ease. All were public companies whose main channel of commerce was able to be shut down with a simple downloadable program.
What an online conference does is eliminate the risk of physical harm being inflicted on conference delegates and protestors. The risk that the event will be interrupted is in essence the same. Ostensibly, the Internet is as vulnerable to attack as a building is to violent protestors.
The significance of an outage in the online arena however, is substantially less than at a real world conference. Debate and discussion may be delayed somewhat online, however the core aim — to provide a forum for globalisation issues to be peacefully discussed — can still be achieved.
As such, the success of the online conference should not be measured by the duration of inevitable downtime, but rather the end result – discussion and presentations that will be able to be accessed by anyone with an Internet connection at anytime.