Clean Clothes Campaign on Tue, 9 Feb 1999 14:37:14 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> multinationals and net activism

taken from the nike-international list:


Activists are using the internet to fight large companies over ethical
issues. Yet many major brand-owners lack a clear counter-strategy. Matthew
Reed reports.
Earlier this month a group of environmental activists staged a sit-in at
Shell's London offices. Although Shell turned the power off and cut the
phone lines, activist Roddy Mansfield broadcast the protest live to the
internet and e-mailed the press, using a digital camera, laptop computer
and mobile phone. This is just one example of a growing trend, whereby
protesters and activists are turning to the internet as quick, cheap and
effective way of reaching millions of people. Many of the web sites are
primitive, but their message is clear and, for some brands, dangerous.
'Boycott' and 'ban' are the two most common phrases used by many of the
anti-brand sites. Whereas a few years ago these messages were confined to
pamphlets or placards, the web has given millions access to the campaigns
- and it seems that their corporate targets are unable or unwilling to act
against them. For almost three years, the McSpotlight site
( has carried material ruled in 1997 to libel
McDonald's. Posted on the site is an exact copy of the leaflet, What's
Wrong With McDonald's?, that provoked the fast- food giant to successfully
sue Helen Steel and Dave Morris, of London Greenpeace, for libel. Yet,
despite spending an estimated #10m on the long-running 'McLibel' case,
McDonald's has taken no action against McSpotlight for publishing the same
material on the internet, which can be downloaded and distributed. No one
at the company was willing to outline its strategy for dealing with
internet protest or to explain how it plans to protect its brand in the
future from similar web onslaughts. McDonald's and Shell are not alone in
being attacked in this way. Many large multinationals, including Procter &
Gamble, have had their names dragged through the online mud. But there are
complex arguments about legal defences and how brand owners can fight the
web agitators. Many opt for the head-in-the-sand approach, hoping that if
they ignore it, it will go away. But the sites are out there, and
thousands of people see them every day. The internet has ceased to be a
fringe environment: Market Tracking International estimates there were 78
million internet users worldwide in 1998 and this will grow to 180 million
by 2002. In Europe, International Data Corporation estimates that 23
million people were using the internet in 1998 and that 83 million will do
so in 2002. Datamonitor believes a third of European homes will have
access to the internet by 2003. Setting up a web site is easy and cheap.
With the information available worldwide at the click of a mouse, the
impact can be huge - some protest sites receive a million visitors each
month. Although it may not be the case for much longer, publishing online
has not generally faced the restrictions placed on traditional media, such
as reporting conventions, owners' fear of litigation and a dependence on
advertisers. Henley Centre consultant Chad Wollen has monitored the rise
of internet activism. He says: 'Taking the US as the bellwether, it is
something that's going to grow.' The emergence of companies such as eWatch
in the US confirms the phenomenon. Located at, it tracks
discussion taking place on the internet about major brands (see graph). BA
site takes off Mikko Takala is webmaster of a site called, set up to protest BA's year-old move to replace
its Inverness-Heathrow route with a flight out of Gatwick, a change
campaigners believe is damaging to the Highlands' economy. 'Doing it this
way we have a greater chance,' he explains. 'The secret to online
campaigning is using a combination of the web and usenet (online
discussion groups) to identify interested groups - in this case travel and
Scottish interest groups. It's not passive; you have to tell people that
it's there.' The site has received a lot of feedback, including from
people working within airlines and airports, says Takala. The McSpotlight
site, run by supporters of the McLibel Two, went online in February 1996.
It is run by volunteers in 22 countries, with mirror sites in four
countries. It contains 20,000 files - most relating to McDonald's and the
trial - and claims more than a million visitors a month. In a 'Beyond
McD's' section, it targets other corporations to focus on their business
practices. These include Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Boots the Chemist,
Philip Morris, BAT, Nestle, Cow & Gate, Milupa, Unilever, Procter &
Gamble, SmithKline Beecham, Colgate-Palmolive and Shell. The internet has
added an extra dimension for activists, says Dan Mills, spokesman for the
McLibel Support Campaign. 'Generally in campaigning groups the internet
and e-mail have become much more important. It's now standard, but when
McSpotlight started it was new and an inspiration for others.' Given the
experience of Steel and Morris, McSpotlight's actions may seem foolhardy.
According to Mills: 'When McSpotlight went up, the idea was that if
McDonald's was able to get the site closed down it would continue through
mirror sites and a McSpotlight Kit. But as a result of the trial
McDonald's was effectively stymied - it would have been a disaster to do
anything more.' Nor has BA taken steps against Takala's site. 'They
haven't taken action because I don't think we've done anything libellous,'
he says. As a campaigning tool, Wollen says the internet has 'been most
effective when the consumer has had a legitimate case and then the company
can't use PR to get out of it'. Shell has taken a similar line. While it
acknowledges it is targeted on the internet, a spokesman said it monitors
the situation: 'It's a medium in which we do come in for some criticism;
we do take it seriously.' Shell takes the power of the web seriously
enough to give a large part of its web site ( over to
information on company ethics, and in a shrewd move to wrong-foot its
detractors has a 'forums' section which both encourages debate and
criticism and includes hotlinks to the sites of Greenpeace, Friends of the
Earth and others. Similarly, McDonald's ( and Nike
( dedicate parts of their web sites to messages on
environmental and labour practices. In a medium where preventing activists
from making allegations appears unviable, disarming them by issuing a
counter message seems an attractive option. Ethical and environmental
issues are a big part of internet campaigning. The Boycott Nike site
( urges visitors to pressurise the firm over its
employment practices in South East Asia. Visitors are also encouraged to
sign letters to US President Bill Clinton and to Nike's chief executive
officer. Project Underground ( encourages
visitors to boycott Shell because of its alleged activities in Peru,
Colombia and Nigeria. Visitors are also encouraged to write to Shell's CEO
and to e-mail the oil corporation. There is also a Boycott Shell/Free
Nigeria home page at The Free Burma
Coalition, which aims to persuade investors to get out of Burma, set up a
web site in September 1995. PepsiCo decided to withdraw from Burma in 1997
after the internet campaign. Texaco and Heineken are among others
persuaded not to invest in, or buy from, the country. So, will ethical and
environmental issues move up the awareness agenda as a consequence? Wollen
believes companies won't change overnight, 'but it will become more of a
battlefield'. For brand owners, the key concern is protecting their brands
and trademarks. Catrin Turner, head of intellectual property at law firm
Davies Arnold Cooper, observes that: 'Some brands shy from taking action -
you don't want to become 'McLibel Mark Two'.' For those that do take
action, the starting point is libel, or trade libel. 'But there are
certain things about the internet that make it more difficult than print
to sue. In particular, the difficulty of tracking down the operators of
the site,' says Cooper. A law unto themselves Tim Hardy, head of
litigation at law firm Cameron McKenna, has a number of clients, from
pharmaceuticals, financial and other sectors, which have been targeted by
protest sites. The problem for brand owners, Hardy says, is that:
'Individuals and activists can put up highly defamatory material on their
web site, much of which probably wouldn't be published otherwise.
Worryingly, this material is readily accessible.' Despite the
difficulties, there are strategies that can be adopted to have material
removed, and even to get web sites killed, Hardy explains. 'You can pursue
the internet service provider (ISP) because they can be held responsible
for what they have allowed to be published. Under the Defamation Act 1996,
they have the innocent dissemination defence, provided they don't know the
material is there, but once you have put them on notice that's no longer
valid. Many ISPs will remove material rather than risk legal action.' In
the US, ISPs are exempt from liability for material that originates from
third parties, under the Communications Decency Act 1996. 'This might
embolden groups to put more stuff on US sites,' Turner says. 'But, if it's
accessible from the UK it's potentially a libel.' An increasingly
litigious atmosphere could have far-reaching consequences. Owners have a
right to protect their brands and trademarks, but do they have a right to
close down debate that may be in the public interest? Turner says: 'As the
ISP market consolidates, the remaining ISPs will become more and more
averse to risk. There will be less of a maverick attitude and possibly the
throttling of free speech.' Although recourse through the law may be
appropriate in some circumstances, to focus purely on the legal dimension
may obscure the meaning behind this rise in internet activism. The Henley
Centre's Wollen believes that companies are finding it difficult to deal
with the cultural change that the internet represents. He suggests that
when dealing with net activists, 'it might be best to start by asking what
the problem is, rather than a 'cease and desist' order. It would be more
in keeping with the ethos of the net. 'If the net is about anything it's
about a shift of power away from the centre and to the individual. It's
also about people organising themselves into communities of affinity,'
Wollen adds. 'And companies find it difficult to deal with emotional
responses of any kind, positive - such as fan and tribute sites - as well
as negative.' Henley Centre director Sian Davies thinks marketers should
try to turn it around: 'If people are going online to talk about brands
then doesn't that tell us something about marketing? A lot of companies
try to shut things down and that's quite short-sighted and naive.' 'It's
early days but online communities are developing, such as GeoCities,
Tripod and SeniorNet, and lifestyle ones relating to music or brands such
as Harley-Davidson,' says Davies. 'It's significant because horizontal
communications, between consumers, is growing but companies tend only to
think about vertical communications - pushing out brand messages and
treating consumers as if they exist in a vacuum, whereas the net is a
fluid environment.' The lesson that brand owners must learn is that the
web is an increasingly powerful cultural phenomenon, and the
communications tactics they develop must be as sophisticated for their
fiercest critics as they have been for their customers.


The Clean Clothes Campaign
PO BOX 11584
1001 GN Amsterdam

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