Protesters threatened last night to use "cyber sit-ins" to derail a high-profile development conference organized by the World Bank, after the Washington-based body announced it would hold the conference online to avoid demonstrations.
The bank is the latest casualty of the increasingly violent climate surrounding international summits since protesters disrupted global trade talks in Seattle at the end of 1999. It decided to hold its annual conference on development economics on the internet after thousands of protesters threatened to descend next week on Barcelona, the original venue.
But the emerging anti-globalization protest movement warned that a virtual conference was just a vulnerable as a live gathering.
"One skilled IT protester could easily crash the whole event. It may be seen as a challenge to scupper the conference", said one protester/hacker who specializes in IT protests.
Cyber-protest is a well-developed tool of protest groups who use computers to exchange information, organize demonstrations and bombard political leaders with demands. Greenpeace has more than 100,000 supporters prepared to use their computers as a protest weapon and claims numerous successes persuading corporations to change policies after subjecting them to a barrage of email.
"If the bank wants contributions to this conference from around the world then they could regret this," said Roger Higman of Friends of the Earth. Earlier this year the pressure group brought down the White House website several times with more than 100,000 people protesting against President Bush's stance on climate change.
The bank admitted that the internet conference could also be besieged by groups opposed to its economic prescriptions for third world economies. The sessions will be interactive, allowing participants to email questions to the speakers, but also providing an opportunity for protesters to attack.
"We've taken reasonable precautions but if there is a major effort to close us down, I can't promise that the computers will hold up," said a bank spokesman.
If the protesters succeed in disrupting the conference, "that will reflect badly on them and their attitude towards free speech and freedom of discussion," he added. The topic of the conference is Globalization, Poverty and Wealth.
Globalize Resistance, a socialist group which intends to take thousands of people to Genoa for next month's G8 meeting, said: "We can still party in Barcelona and have more fun than if we were in front of computer screens. They can run, but they cannot hide."
The bank's annual meeting in Prague last September was surrounded by thousands of protesters who battled with the police.
Explaining the decision to abandon the Barcelona event, a World Bank spokeswoman, Caroline Anstey, said: "A conference on poverty reduction should take place in a peaceful atmosphere free from heckling, violence and intimidation."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001