Caught in a net

A recent coup on the Internet, which broke the monopoly held by the Netherland's state publishers over information, throws light on what is being referred to as Internet activism

Published: Monday 15 July 1996

Caught in a net

-- (Credit: Illustrations: Vishwajyoti)THE agency that has ushered in the era of Internet activism is a bureau called Jansen and Janssen, named after Thomson and Thompson, the two detectives who feature in the Tintin comics. Jansen and Janssen is a spin off from the powerful squatter movement which occurred in Amsterdam in the '80s. Activists from the bureau who were involved in the movement had to interact a great deal with the police and secret services. Their close encounter with these law-enforcement agencies at that time gave them the opportunity to initiate the collection of information on the strategies and contra- expertise employed by these forces.

Jansen and Janssen, founded in 1985, soon' developed an archive on police tactics, focussing particularly on how the force dealt with its more critical powers. The organisation published its research on how the secret service tried to infiltrate activist movements and on how they black- mailed asylum-seekers to work for them. In 1994, the group revealed how private detectives collected information about lobby groups and sold it to the multinationals concerned. The bureau's other areas of interest have been the change in police tactics in fighting organised crime over the years, the influence of foreign agencies on the seizure of drugs and the shift towards more intelligence gathering on the part of the police. Earlier, although the Dutch took the organisation seriously they did so only to a certain extent. Some of the reports uncovered by the bureau could simply not find their way to the media.

This was the situation until two years back, when a public prosecutor in Amsterdam found that a special squad team, the Inter-regional Research Team was de facto exploiting a drug trafficking line. The police worked with an informant, who was allowed to grow into someone really important in order to infiltrate a big gang and looked the other way when containers full of drugs arrived from abroad. Ultimately, the police were involved in organising the import and export of all kinds of drugs, including ecstasy and cocaine.

Although the first official investigation into the matter did 'not really elucidate what was going on, the crisis was nevertheless taken seriously. Matters became serious enough for both the ministers of internal affairs and justice to submit their resignations. Further investigation seemed necessary and an official parliamentary inquiry commission, the Van Traa Commission, was set up. Members of the Commission interviewed a number of people involved in the scandal and the portions of the hearings which ivere to be made public, were broad cast live on television in October, 1995. People were shocked to hear aliout what had been happening and how little the higher-ups had known about it.

The results of the Van Traa Commission's findings were published in 13 volumes (more than 5,000 pages) and sold for us $397. A compact disk read-only memory (CD-ROM) with the same information (accessed through an impressive search engine and hyperlinked keywords and notes) was available for another us $361. Since the textual version had no index, people were forced to buy the entire package for over us $571. The publishers of the report were the SDU - the former State Publishing House which was recently privatised. The steep price tag attached to the report caused a furor because these documents are in fact Hansards (report of proceedings) of Parliament and should therefore be freely available to the public. The Hansards of Parliament are free of copyright laws as an exception is made for the sake of democracy.

After a plea printed in the columns of the daily, NRc Handelsblad - to put the Van Traa report on the Internet - went unheeded, the bureau decided it was time to act. It took up the challenge and completed the task within a week. The CD-Rom was hacked and the stripped texts were freed from the processed version. The only thing lost were the hyperlinks and the notes. The SDU could lay claims on the edited version but not on the texts as such. Jansen and Janssen spotted the loophole and jumped right in to it! The stripped texts were turned into hyper text mark up language (HTML)-pages, divided into neat paragraphs and made accessible by a search engine. The monopoly of the SDu had been broken and the Van Traa report was splashed on the Internet.

Having achieved this the bureau received many congratulatory messages including those from the managing director of the SDu and the Dutch secretary of state for home affairs. The latter stressed the importance of the accessibility of government information and announced a pilot project for using teletext on the local cable because the masses did not own computers, The Jansen and Janssen home page received overwhelmingly enthusiastic responses too. The bureau had suddenly catapulted to fame, been accepted by the Dutch Parliament, and got recognised throughout the country.

The monopoly of the SDu had been a thorn in many people's flesh at various levels. Two weeks after the launch of the Van Traa home page, the SDu announced that it would put all Hansards of Parliament on line from May 1, 1996.

But the story did not end there because a month later, the Rijksrecherche (an internal affairs agency, a kind of police of the police), completed their probe into the affairs of the criminal investigation department which had employed the two drug- dealing officers. The reports brought out by this department are usually secret. But the results of their investigation were handed over to the Parliament, which changed their status. As the politicians were under great pressure, they had to disclose this report within a week. Two copies of the 500-page report - full of shocking details - were made available to each party.

Putting it on the Net was far more difficult this time as the entire text had to be scanned by hand and had to be achieved within the course of a weekend. But the bureau successfully completed this mission too. it made available a composite package of the Van Traa site, the internal affairs report and a'selection of other works by Jansen and Janssen for the price of us $28.

The breaking of the monopoly enjoyed by a privatised state organ is an achievement in itself, but for the same to happen on the Internet is indeed a novel development. The bureau's site on the Internet signifies a big step forward in talks between authorities on different levels. It has also meant a lot to the public who can now access information - that was in any case meant to be public through the electronic media. The event has also been welcomed by members of the Dutch Parliament for they would be interested in getting the couch potatoes more involved in politics.

The actual agenda behind the entire exercise seems to be to deepen the discussion on investigation methods. In addition, an innovative use to which the power of the Internet could be put, has been disclosed. That the Internet could add a certain value to a discussion and supply a special dimension to a campaign, could in fact be a very important step to developing political activism on the Net.

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