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Lost in Cyberspace

Using the Internet to promote your cause

This article was originally published on November 17, 1998 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

The most visible way in which the Internet is changing society may be in business – the growing movement of commerce to the electronic arena – but the more profound changes are personal. What the Internet does better than anything else – better even than finding new ways to make money – is to democratize communication.

With the Internet, anyone can now be a publisher or broadcaster for very low cost. With a small bit of money and a willingness to work, most people can now afford to publish their own online magazine or host a radio "webcast"; the cost of publishing or broadcasting has dropped from the hundreds of thousands of dollars range to less than $10,000.

As well as competing with established media, the Web also allows we common folk to completely bypass traditional media. Protest and counterculture movements of all stripes have long sought to establish their own networks of communication – newsletters and flyers being the most common.

But with the rise of the Internet, activists can now use the personal computer to set up information resources with the same global reach as CBS or the the Times of London.

An example of a small group of individuals using the Web to promote a cause is the case of the family and friends of Lori Berenson.

You may have read about Berenson. She's the young American woman serving a life term in a Peruvian prison for supposedly aiding leftist rebels.

Undermining the Peruvian government's position is the fact that Berenson was convicted by a secret military tribunal at which she was not allowed to present evidence or witnesses, or cross-examine the prosecution's witnesses. The U.S. State Department and a majority of the Senate are on record as demanding a new, open trial for Berenson, at which few seem to feel she'd be convicted.

But as with many other causes in today's crowded world, Berenson's supporters have a hard time keeping the national media interested in her story. There are sex scandals to chase and wars to report, and so the plight of a single woman would normally be forgotten by the next 24-hour news cycle.

At least, that is, before the explosion of the Internet.

With the Net, Berenson's circle has managed to keep each other and the outside world informed as to the status of her fight.

The Lori Berenson Needs Your Help! Page shows how average citizens with a passion can use the power of the Internet to bypass traditional media and keep the heat on the source of their outrage (the Peruvian government, in this case).

The Berenson pages cost little or nothing for her supporters to maintain. GeoCities, where the page is hosted, is one of the several companies now offering free Web space. The page was built and is now kept up to date by volunteers – her friends and others who don't know her but who have joined the cause.

Providing both timely information and a meeting ground for this small community built around a single issue, the Lori Berenson site is a combination newsletter, letter-writing campaign and soapbox. On the site or from its links, you can get information on protesting her detention, on writing to her personally and read notes from her parents after their recent visits to her prison cell in Peru. You can read U.S. State Department and Amnesty International reports on her situation, let your senator or representative know how you feel about Berenson's treatment by a foreign government and read newspaper stories about her and the Peruvian government's record on civil rights in general. It is a fairly complete site and a good example of what kind of grass-roots political organization is possible with the Internet.

Ironically, it seems Berenson's real crime was writing critically about the Peruvian government via the Internet. Berenson was in Peru reporting for the alternative press when she was arrested – now the technology that helped get her in trouble is being used to build pressure on Peru to grant her a new, open trial.