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Internet: Analysis From Washington -- Wars On The Web

Washington, 15 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Political battles within, between, and among countries are now being fought on the Internet, a development that has changed many of the rules of the game between attackers and defenders of the status quo.

A computer engineer is on trial this week for posting materials on his website that the Chinese government finds "subversive." Two years ago, another Chinese computer expert was sentenced to two years in jail for sending 300,000 email addresses to dissidents based abroad, but the trial now of Huang Qi in Chengdou is the first time that a website operator has to appear in court to answer charges involving the Internet.

Huang Qi's case is especially troubling because he launched his site in 1999 to assist people in finding missing relatives and friends rather than to promote any political cause. Indeed, he denied to a German newspaper at that time that he had any political objectives. As a result, for most of the last two years, he had good relations with local authorities.

But over time that began to change, both because other people posted messages on Huang Qi's site critical of the regime and because Huang Qi himself became radicalized in the process. Indeed, his last message to the site, a German newspaper reported earlier this week was: "Thanks to everyone who is fighting for democracy. It will come. Until we meet again!"

A second and very different Internet conflict opened up this week in the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians. Ghassan Qadah, the director general of the Palestinian Authority Computer Center, announced that his organization is now registering domain names with a extension to mark them as part of the Palestinian world.

The United Nations recently agreed to have the letters "PS" stand for Palestinian territories, Qadah said. And that has prompted his organization to develop the code for Internet sites as well. Until recently, travel restrictions and other problems had kept the Authority from launching this extension, but now thanks to help from France, Sweden, and Egypt, the Palestinians have their own place on the web.

That development has made them very proud. As Maam Bsesio, the general manager of the Palestinian Internet service provider Palnet, put it this way: "it's something we have been fighting for the longest time. We believe it's like the Palestinian flag. We look forward to joining."

And still a third battleground on the web being discussed at present concerns use of the Internet by Muslim fundamentalist groups both to spread their ideology and to communicate with one another, American news agencies reported. American intelligence officials, including Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet, say that the Al-Qaeda group of Osama bin Laden, HAMAS, and Hezbollah all use the Internet as part of their operations.

Sometimes these groups hide messages to their operatives on popular or pornographic sites, and sometimes they put them in advanced codes that governments must devote enormous resources to cracking. Indeed, it took the supercomputers at the U.S. National Security Agency to crack several such messages involving terrorist attacks on American airlines over the last decade and on the World Trade Center in New York in 1993.

As has been the case with most technological innovations, those seeking to use the Internet offensively to promote their goals seem to have an advantage over those who seek to defend against such attacks. But as the history of other kinds of warfare suggests, that initial advantage enjoyed by the offense quickly prompts the defense to develop countermeasures.

In each of these three cases -- the Chinese website operator, the Palestinian extension, and terrorist communications -- those playing defense appear to be catching up.

After being unsure what to do, the Chinese government is seeking to use the courts against website operators. The Palestinians have been forced to put their extension on foreign Internet providers lest their lines be cut by Israel. And the United States and other major powers have stepped up their cooperation to track down those who use the Internet to organize terrorist attacks.

But each new move of the defense in turn prompts a new response by the offense, and consequently, the various wars on the web seem certain to continue, now escalating, now calming down, as people on both sides of these divides try to figure out how to fight in virtual space the battles they have been conducting in the here and now.