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The internet helped defeat the MAI 20 years ago, does it still have that power?

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The Internet has been acknowledged as playing a key role in the defeat of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) in October 1998.

Tony Clarke, Martin Khor, and Lori Wallach are credited with obtaining a copy of a draft of the negotiating text in March 1997 and distributing it via email and websites -- sparking massive global opposition to the deal the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) had been negotiating in secret since September 1995.

In 1998, in a piece supportive of the MAI in the Cornell International Law Journal, Rainer Geiger softens that with, "It is true that public debate picked up relatively late after drafts of the agreement had been put on the internet, first by non-government organizations (NGOs), then by the OECD and the negotiating partners themselves."

Also that year, Stephen J. Kobrin wrote in Foreign Policy, "The Preamble Collaborative was one of more than 600 organizations in nearly 70 countries expressing vehement opposition to the treaty, often in apocalyptic terms."

He then highlights, "The collaborative's extensive World Wide Web site -- featuring fact sheets, congressional testimony, position papers, and issue briefs -- was part of a tidal wave of electronically amplified public opposition to the MAI."

Wendy Varney and Brian Martin also noted in Social Alternatives, "MAI opponents made heavy use of electronic mail and the World Wide Web in raising the alert, sharing information and coordinating actions."

And David Wood wrote in the Philosophy and Geography journal that, "[My paper] looks at the nature of the diverse coalition of interests opposed to the MAI, and in particular their use of e‐mail and the Internet, and argues that the success of this campaign has lessons beyond the immediate victory over the forces promoting the MAI."

So, twenty years after the defeat of the MAI, are there still lessons to glean? How has the online battlefield for a better world changed?

In some ways, social media -- including the more dynamic and participatory mediums of Facebook and Twitter -- have partially displaced websites as sources of information, or at least may now function as the primary outreach tool that alerts people to information on websites.

Twitter hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo have gone viral and have been a potent way of sharing lived experiences both quickly and widely. Cell phone videos of police shootings and racist incidents have also brought into sharper relief for the broader public this reality. The use of e-petitions has also dramatically increased over the past twenty years.

And while they provide an easy way for people to express opposition or support, it's hard to argue given their pervasiveness and common use by numerous groups that their batting average makes them a singularly effective tool.

For example, since taking office Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has received 240,376 messages (via e-petitions, emails and letters) about climate change, 140,859 messages on pipelines, 65,984 on renewable energy, and 148,005 on Site C. All without discernible impact.

E-petitions, which have spawned for profit businesses like Change.org, can also have the unintended effect of dulling actual on-the-ground mass mobilizations.

It has also been argued that open organizing on Facebook and other social media platforms makes it easier for the government, the police, and other institutions opposing social change to monitor and counteract the activities of social justice activists.

Social media has also spawned trolling and vicious and misogynist online attacks against women advocating for environmental justice.

And it can be argued that governments and corporations have learned how to use the Internet and social media more effectively than they were able to muster in 1998. Just as Vietnam was the first "television war" (which helped the anti-war cause), the other side learned the TV appeal of "shock and awe" (to weaken anti-war activism).

Today, Monday October 15, marks the 20th anniversary of the Internet playing a major role in the defeat of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment.  

One lesson for us today may be that the political terrain is always changing and that to stop the Trans Mountain pipeline, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, and other affronts to the public good, our strategies need to continue to evolve and that ingenuity and innovation are key assets in our fight against those with deep pockets.

Brent Patterson is a political activist and writer.

Image: Jeremy Brooks/Flickr

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