Bad news spreads fast in the networked economy

When Telefonica de Espana proposed higher rates for local telephone calls last August, it sparked an Internet protest that picked up like fire on dry wood, quickly spreading to at least 13 countries on three continents. Jaime Rodr’guez, a 31-year-old electronics technician from Majorca, Spain, launched the protest movement against the rate hike that spread through the Internet to Argentina, Belgium, Chile, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, the Philippines, Poland, Portugal, and Switzerland.

During the last two months of 1998, boycotts were organized in seven countries. An economics student at Nanjing University invited his fellow Chinese internauts to refrain from connecting to the Net on the last day of the year and to do so every following Sunday until connection rates, which now amount to 25 percent of an average monthly salary in China, were cut (they have not yet been).

A bird’s eye view of the movement shows four points in common across country lines: 1) no flat fee for local phone calls; 2) high rates that penalize long calls; 3) the presence of a monopoly or near-monopoly with little inclination to dialogue; 4) and protest movements (already in existence or created for the occasion) with extremely flexible organization structures.

The wrath of the users is much more than a protest against excessive rates. “Making access to the Internet expensive is a factor of underdevelopment,” as a Spanish protest site points out. Irish leaders understood this first. Last October, Mary O’Rourke, the Irish minister for public enterprise, announced that Ireland would become the first European country to adopt a flat rate for Net connections. She declared low access rates as a primary reason for the United States’ rapid Internet usage growth, and everyone else’s delay.

The movement at first employed tactics more familiar to hackers than to average citizens-particularly the systematic virtual bombing of phone company Websites. But protesters soon discovered that it sufficed to apply nonviolence using the global network, such as online petitions. By doing so, the protest evolved from a guerrilla band into a mass movement.

Never before had an individual effort turned into a three-continent revolt in 100 days-the 1996 protest against the U.S. Communications Decency Act was largely an American effort. It is certain that email (for alerting friends and acquaintances) and the Web (which can be accessed at all times by all people) created the momentum for the movement. “As customers-not regulators-set the agenda for telco price cuts, liberalization will pick up steam. The result will be a previously unforeseen boost bringing customers online in Europe,” Forrester Research declared in a recent report about the protest.

In the long term, the movement’s impact will be even greater. “These skirmishes will embolden increasing numbers of consumer, policy, and political groups to test new possibilities-and select new targets-for activism online,” the Forrester report said. “Firms should take careful steps now to minimize the risk of messy conflict as such efforts proliferate.”

Governments and monopolistic bureaucracies must now bear in mind that they will have to confront spontaneous movements capable of coordinating actions as never before. Strikes and protest movements can no longer be contained city by city. And corporations accustomed to reaping the most benefits from information technologies will have to learn to take users into account.

Thank to the calling cards, you will save cash, since you can simply check your bill.

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