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April 13, 1999

Inside Technology

Cyberwar: Yugoslavia on the Internet

by T.E. Blair

It's 1999, and technology has reached new heights all over the world. It only stands to reason that as the events between NATO and Yugoslavia escalate, the Internet should take on new significance. From personal e-mail, to propaganda, to on-line attacks, the Internet has become a new and useful weapon in the worldwide arsenal. An onslaught of mail from inside Yugoslavia has begun to inundate many U.S. e-mailboxes. In an effort to sway public opinion in the U.S., personal accounts of missile damage and human tragedies are flooding in. To an extent, these are having their desired effects. As people receive detailed stories of destruction and death, they are passing these stories along to others. "Around 4:30 a.m., cruise missiles hit Belgrade again! This time the target was pure civilian object -- heating plant in largest part of Belgrade (western part of the city, called New Belgrade, with more than 100,000 citizens)," writes Slobodan Markovic. "I can only imagine how was it at my grandmothers place. She lives on the 10th floor in a building which is no more than 800 meters far away from the plant... Right now (4:45), I cannot reach her over the phone..."

Accounts such as these, intentionally personal in nature, are then e-mailed all over the world. Recipients and readers must judge the content for themselves. One Yugoslavian writes, "CNN and Sky News rejoice over flames in Belgrade and another destroyed bridge in Novi Sad. That is so utterly cruel... for me, this was a deja vu -- things happened exactly the same as on Wednesday, March 24. I was at my computer, checking mail; I stopped writing a mail to answer a phone call and then an awfully strong detonation shook the walls. This bridge is only five minutes' walk from my parent's apartment. You will be suspicious maybe and say, 'how come everything is so close to you?' The answer is simple - Novi Sad is a small town. And do not believe if they tell you it is in Kosovo. It is in Vojvodina, on the opposite side from Kosovo. Kosovo is Southern Serbia, Vojvodina [is] Northern. This thing done to Yugoslavia is the greatest shame of the world in this century."

Now, for the first time, information from "the other side" is available not just to government officials and journalists, but to the average person. This slant on technology poses a new threat. How does either side of any opposing faction keep mass propaganda from being distributed to its residents? How much will public opinion sway the events? Most importantly, what is truth and what is not? Government can no longer keep a handhold on what information becomes public knowledge.

"As I finish this letter, the sirens start to blow. Pray for us." -Vladimir Kulic, architect. This type of heart-wrenching, intimate view into the lives of those inside Yugoslavia carries a strong message. No longer can war be viewed as an impersonal action. Now, faced with the realities of what they see on television and what they read from the inside, people must draw their own conclusions. In an effort to be sure those conclusions are the desired ones, massive e- mail lobbying has been started by at least 25 computers in Yugoslavia. More than 10,000 Internet users, primarily within the U.S., have been on the receiving end of this "spam" campaign. Ellen Joan Pollock and Andrea Petersen of The Wall Street Journal write that for many recipients, there's an added, irksome twist. Hundreds have sent reply e-mail messages demanding to be taken off the Yugoslav mailing lists, only to have copies of the requests circulated to everyone who received the message in the first place. This congestion of e-mail has been overwhelming, and in many cases has had negative results. Recipients are angered by the intrusion of what, in some instances, has been as many as 200 to 300 messages. One San Antonio lawyer received up to 20 every half-hour. But despite some negative responses, the originators feel it is necessary. "I really despise spam messages that are sent everywhere to a zillion addresses, but now we really don't have a choice," says Dragomir D. Dimitrijevic, a Belgrade software development consultant.

Some cases are even more indicative of the impact technology and the Internet is having. Slobodan Markovic is the technical administrator of a mailing list called "Internodium." The list is hailed as being "a list for those who start revolutions from their room." The on-line web site states: "Internodium is an organization which supports the use of the Internet, as a new medium, for free expression of various ideas, opinions and views of the world," and that, "the primary objective of the Internodium mailing list is to connect people who wish to help realize the project's goals."

In response to this type of mass mailing, some Internet Service Providers have begun blocking mail sent into its system from any address ending in "yu" which indicates Yugoslavia. But Yugoslavia is not the only side using modern technology and the Internet to its advantage. Some of the e-mail being sent from inside Yugoslavia is coming from sources that are bent on ensuring that their version be told. The names of these sources have been concealed for safety reasons. "I am ashamed of the things members of my people did to Albanians in Kosovo and Muslims in Bosnia and for that reason I am doing everything I can to help misfortuned and terrorized people now." "For the moment, most who live and work in Belgrade's central districts don't fear direct airstrikes." "Even with various sources available, it is sometimes hard to get an accurate picture of events; both Western and domestic coverage is taken with a grain of salt."

In addition, accounts from journalists who fled Yugoslavia just before the airstrikes began have also been sent throughout the Internet. David Brauchli writes, "Wade's eyes bulged, his neck strained. He shouted, 'C'mon man, we gotta get out of here! They just put a gun to the head of a CNN guy trying to feed at the TV station."

This type of real-life perspective gives a chillingly real account of what sometimes seems unreal when displayed on television. Both sides must face the realization that average citizens are now able to see and hear things they were never introduced to before. People must face both sides of the issue on their own, and come to their own conclusions. What will this mean for the future? Perhaps we can see some positive results. Maybe if people are forced to see each military action as something affecting real, living people rather that just a spot on the map, we can come to a more peaceful resolution. Perhaps the Internet, as a tool of information, can bring about a greater good for the world.

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