GreenNet CSIR Toolkit Briefing no. 6
Using the Internet to get your point across
Written by Paul Mobbs for the
GreenNet Civil Society Internet Rights Project, 2002.
The Internet - the new village green?
Environmental and social campaigners were amongst the first to take to using the Internet.
The reason for this is simple - it is a low cost and highly effective communications medium.
Since the Internet was first used for protest, however, few campaigners, at local or national
level, have been quick to realise its potential. This is mainly because:
Today, of course, there is a whole new generation of thoroughly computer literate campaigners
taking to the Internet. There are also many more knowledgeable geeks around to help
campaign groups, too.
- Early web-based campaigning tended to reproduce "real world" tactics, in an electronic
- The skill base was initially (i.e. in the late 1980s) lacking to enable more innovative use
to be made of the Internet.
In recent years the use of the Internet for campaigning, from global anti-capitalist protests
to fuel price protests in Europe, has become very newsworthy. Along with the hype that often
accompanies press reports of computer viruses, Internet campaigns are often portrayed in the
media as something peculiar, aberrant or even dangerous.
It is only since the mid-1990s that the potential of the World-Wide-Web (WWW) has been fully
realised as a global communications medium. Although developments in information technology
began to transform the corporate environment in the 1980s, it was not until around 1997 that
the Internet took off with the general public and online campaigning became a viable reality.
Over the next ten years, as Internet access increases, online campaigns are likely to become
as significant a force as conventional ones.
The Internet enables people to interact socially without limits of geography. It can therefore
give opportunities for involvement to a far greater number of people than many other sorts of
campaigning. It is potentially a highly democratic medium, doing away with the barriers of
distance and access that can restrict people's ability to communicate with those in power. Many
more people can lobby a decision-maker online, for instance, than could usually do so in person.
Of course, barriers to access and unrestricted communication still exist on the Internet;
social equality and social exclusion
mean that many people do not yet have
connectivity. The main issues
Nevertheless, for many people interested in online campaigning and protest, the Internet
represents a global common;
a space that everyone should be able to access and share
equally. Unfortunately, this perception is rarely shared by national governments.
- Access - many people's first language is not one of the major European languages
which dominate business and the Internet;
- Cost - computers are still comparatively expensive, and beyond the reach of many
people in the world (increasing Internet access via the TV may be one way around this problem,
The Internet is not easily mapped or controlled; it has no geography, and even three-dimensional
maps make little sense of the organised chaos of its topography. This makes it problematic for
those used to expanding their political and/or economic power by controlling and mapping land.
Although the Internet cannot be demarcated in the way that land and property are in the 'real'
world, in recent years attempts have been made to annex the 'Net on behalf of one prominent
group of users - those involved with e-commerce.
Expansion of the Internet has been driven by e-commerce since around 1994. The growth of
corporate interests, and the lack of any general framework of human rights in relation to use
of the Internet, means that any form of online activism is often portrayed as a threat by the
press. Those who buy into this view often include:
Some people in e-commerce talk openly of a new Wild West frontier, where corporate vigilantism
is the only way that e-business and global corporations can work 'safely' on the 'Net. Some
even draw parallels between the perceived contemporary problem of ordinary campaigners turning
to hacktivism (i.e. high-tech,
Internet enabled, political activism), and that of the US railroads of the 1870s; they highlight
the need for hired guns to make the system safe and
- Corporations, who feel threatened by the impact that Internet-based networking and public
pressure can summon up against their excesses around world;
- Corporate Internet security analysts, who see the actions of online campaigners and
activists as a threat to their computer systems; and
- Politicians and government officials, some of whom object to the alternative, uncensored
medium of the Internet and its capacity for people to develop and share information that exposes
the poor performance of governments and undermines their credibility.
The Internet is a great leveller. Its only real limiting factor is access, but once you have
that, you can reach much the same people and numbers as the governments and corporation with
whom you share the 'Net. You don't necessarily have to have a lot of money, or PR representatives,
or private security guards keeping you out of buildings, to be a success on the Internet.
Because governments and corporations this equality of access threatening, in most countries
rights you might take for granted elsewhere in your life (such as freedom of association and
freedom of expression) do not exist on the 'Net. There have been many examples of companies who
run the 'Net terminating the email and web accounts of people who are considered problematic.
Many Internet service providers regard Internet
access purely as a business or contractual issue, rather than in terms of
social or ethical rights. Many ISPs
will therefore remove a person's email access or web sites when asked to do so by the security
consultants of corporations targeted by online campaigns.
Over the next few years there is likely to be a clear and deepening divide between these two
opposing models of Internet usage.
Those who believe that the Internet should be a business space for corporations, free from the
risks of interference by campaign groups, will continue to press for tighter controls on certain
so-called undesirable activities - such as active anti-corporate protest - on the Internet.
On the other side, those who see the Internet as a medium for community-level communication will
resist what they see as the gradual corporatisation of the Internet. They will press for
real rights to be extended to the Internet, including rights of protest, in order to balance the
powerful corporate interests of companies trading via the 'Net.
Developing Internet-based campaigns is an essential step in realising the role and potential of
the 'Net as a global common, and
making it a truly shared, communal space, free from the limitations of corporate control.
Campaign groups, therefore, need to understand the potential of the 'Net as an enabling medium
for public pressure campaigns and lobbying.
Campaigning on Internet
Campaigning on the Internet is like campaigning through any other medium. You need:
The Internet has certain advantages over other kinds of campaign medium. It enables you to make
information available to people for them to use in a number of ways; they might pass on to others
online, personalise it, and then perhaps produce copies they distribute in their own area. Because
of this potential for interaction and modification of information, people can participate at a
variety of levels and in a range of ways with which they feel comfortable.
- a target that people can identify with (preferably one that has some connection with the
- to know there is potentially a public audience out there that is motivated to join in;
- to be able to inspire people to make the campaign, and any online actions, a success;
- an identifiable outcome.
This kind of flexibility is rare in other kinds of campaigning, because the logistics or
resources involved do not make it feasible.
Because the Internet is not limited by geographical barriers,
national or regional divisions
may have less significance than in other kinds of campaigning; organisations can develop greater
vertical and horizontal integration within their campaigning.
Increasingly, centralised campaign groups will see their role change from leading campaigns
to facilitating them; they are likely to become providers of material that enables others
to work on the issue. Some people within the larger campaign groups see this as a threat to their
brand in a competitive public environment. But in actuality this change throws up a challenge to
them, in much the same way that the Internet challenges corporations and governments; is their
role to be one of control or participation?
A good recent example of an interactive campaign, integrating various levels of expertise,
participation and activity, is the anti-genetic engineering protests that across Europe. Debates
on the role of genetics in agriculture have been developed and used to promote a cutting-edge
campaign through the use of email and online networks. Experts and specialists work in partnership
work with local activists to develop the public understanding of the issues. This also enables
other campaign work, from supermarket lobbying to direct action protests against genetic test
This type of communal network of interest, where people are bound together by a common
understanding of a social problem, can generate much more activity, at much lower cost, than would
be possible if it were not operating through the Internet. Such campaigns can therefore be a
powerful, and empowering, means of public expression.
The communications media of the Internet
The Internet began as a mechanism for sending text messages. Increasing
media convergence, and the range of
computer protocols. that have been
developed, means that today it is a vehicle not only for passing messages but also for broadcast
TV and radio. Internet media are now powerful tools for communication; the important thing for
a campaigner is to know how to use these services to best advantage.
When you are putting together an Internet campaign, you will need to work out a plan for
motivating and interact with your audience (i.e. those people you hope will join in the campaign).
To do this, and to decide how you are going use the Internet as a vehicle for your campaign, you
need to understand something about its various elements, in order to make the most of the tools
at your disposal.
Email has developed over the years to become a
very complex medium. It has moved from being just a one-to-one messaging facility to a powerful
means of group communication. Using multiple email or
email lists you can contact ten,
one hundred or one thousand people as easily as you can contact one. If you are part of a widely
scattered group, email is an effective and easy means of enabling action networks to co-ordinate
the activities of many people.
By using email and email lists you can unite and include all participants in a campaign, wherever
they may be, in dialogues about campaign development, action or feedback. This is a significant
advantage of 'Net-based campaigning. Communicating on this level is not impossible for 'real world'
campaigns, but they make it very time consuming and much more expensive. With email, however, you
have a powerful tool that is also very economical.
Web sites are part of most campaigns today. But little of the information that is stored on web
sites is actually accessed directly. It is usually found through using
search engines - Internet servers
that keep huge classified directories of the contents of millions of web pages. It is often this
seldom-accessed material that provides researchers of novel or obscure issues with the information
they need to make connections and piece together the elements of their arguments.
The key to tracking down information on the Internet is therefore how well a website is indexed
and linked to search engines.
The current top limit for campaign groups online is broadcasting. Faster connection and processing
speeds will enable groups to set up their own virtual radio or TV stations without the restrictive
controls imposed on the traditional broadcast media. Indeed, this is already happening; there is a
whole range of small stations, including some from the UK, routed through the
web site. As web casting becomes the norm for society's broadcast media, issues over who defines
and controls audio and video standards on the Internet, and hence who controls the form of society's
media communications, will become more contentious.
Information-only, or "passive" campaign sites
The majority of Internet sites are 'passive'; they do not direct or invite action, they merely
provide information and opinion. Passive sites can be very useful. They can provide links to other
organisations working on similar issues. They can provide news and recent developments relating to
an issue. And for the beginner, they can provide an outline of the issues and references or links
to further learning materials.
'Passive' data on the 'Net falls into the following categories:
Early campaign sites contained nothing more than large amounts of text. Slow connection speeds made
viewing lots of graphics tedious and difficult. Today, connection speeds have increased six to ten
times what they were ten years ago.
- Administrative documents, such as press releases, reports and commentary/op-ed. Articles;
- News coverage - of which there are large quantities on the 'Net in text, audio and video;
- Personal views and musings on a wide range of subjects, ranging from deep ecologists to racist
hate sites; and
- Files, of all types, sizes and descriptions, containing images, video, audio, music and computer
There is` nevertheless, a continuing preponderance of dense campaign material. This is not a problem
where that is a core aspect of the site - for example, the storage of a large quantity of technical
documents online as a resource to help community campaigners. But as a means of inspiring people to
take information away and act upon it, many sites fail to provide a simple and inviting scheme of
Information can enable personal education, networking and action. All too many sites do not engage
the user to actively participate in determining courses of action. These sites will give you a
brochure, ask you to read it, and then to do as they say to take action on their behalf. Although
this may activate you as a citizen, you are really just working to someone else's agenda. You may
not have personal control or involvement with the issue. This sort of approach is gradually beginning
to change, however. These kinds of Internet sites can be very useful, and play an important role in
terms of the Internet's global 'consciousness'.
Activist campaign sites
An action-based web site will give some responsibility and autonomy in the use of information to the
Many web sites used to give out phone numbers or postal addresses of targets for people to lobby.
Today that is no longer necessary, with so many corporations, government departments and regulators
now online. This makes online campaigns easy to devise and operate.
Rather than simply giving information to the public, it is now possible to create channels by which
people can take action themselves.
A key feature of the 'Net that makes this possible -
Scripting can enhance your Internet site and help your online campaign in all sorts of ways. It can
be used to:
Good use of scripting can save you and your supporters time and effort. It can be especially helpful
for small groups, enabling them to produce campaigns just as effectively as larger, well-funded
is a good example of a campaign site using scripting creatively (see next section). The
'Fax Your MP' site uses
scripting to link together the web and a fax portal to allow people to find their member of
Parliament and fax them a message. Another good example is the
Stop Esso web site
which runs complex campaigns around the lobbying of the Esso corporation.
- run web events or actions;
- enable the automation of certain tasks, such as compiling petitions;
- create dynamic pages that extract information from a database.
Campaigns and "hacktivism"
'Hackers' are not nasty people who break into
computer systems. That is a misnomer given by the media. A 'hacker' is anyone who is very good with
computer systems, especially networked computer systems like those on the Internet.
The most hi-tech form of Internet protests are usually backed up by hackers, and have been labelled
as 'hacktivism' ('hacker' + 'activism').
Today the term hacktivism is usually taken to mean the use of the Internet for hi-tech
campaign co-ordination ('hi-tech' + 'activism').
One of the great milestones in active online campaigning, or hacktivism, was the
McSpotlight web site.
This provided access to the vast amounts of material being produced about the McDonalds burger
chain from the McLibel trial.
It also used scripting and databases to enable users to search for material, to "adopt a branch"
(which then integrated them into a database for people to contact them locally) as part of global
McDonalds protests, and to download material for direct use or sub-editing to enable people to set
up their own local actions. The
Stop Esso site also works
in a similar way, allowing people to 'adopt' an Esso filling station.
There are currently a number of hacktivist groups that have been promoting global protests on a
variety of issues. Notable examples of groups that work on social and environmental issues are:
There are a number of other groups who work to a more
Some of their work does involve cracking computer systems; the "anonymous" group, for example, who
protested about the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos in early 2001, by breaking into the
conference computer system and stealing the personal records of the conference attendees from the
- A group called the
Disturbance Theater, who, on behalf of the Zapatista rebels of southern Mexico, have been
waging an online lobbying campaign against human rights and economic abuses by the Mexican
who develop online campaigns that challenge the privatisation of public space and corporate branding.
- the electrohippie
collective, who have been developing a number of actions on environmental and globalisation
themes for online and off-line use.
- ®TMark, which
promotes online action against brand names and multinational corporations.
Hacktivism pushes the boundaries of online protest on the Internet, and in the process can generate
new ways of carrying out online actions. the electrohippie collective's online protest during
the World Trade Organisation's (WTO) Seattle conference in 1999 attracted around half a million
participants over four days, and partially closed the WTO's web server.
Other actions focus on email or on getting the public to lobby governments on national or
international issues. Hacktivists are also developing media resources via the Internet. A good
example of this is the Indymedia
group who, during protests such as those in Seattle, Prague or Genoa, set up live web casting of video
and audio from the protest groups on the Internet.
Hacktivism is often decried by the mainstream IT industry and by some government agencies. But
hacktivists have an important role to play in developing the tools and techniques that will be
required in a 'wired', 'globalised' world. Most importantly, hacktivists also ensure that issues of
public participation and use of new communication media stay on the agenda, instead of being submerged
beneath the attempts of media and communications corporations to control them.
The Internet also allows individuals to set up their own actions, and then publicise them. A good
example was a student in America,
Jonah H. Peretti.
He noticed that the Nike web site has a system where you could design your own pair of trainers
online. He requested a pair with the word 'sweatshop'. Nike declined his order. But the series of
email from him to Nike, and Nike's responses, formed the basis of a popular anti-Nike web site that
inspired many others to take action themselves.
Putting it together
The Internet and the convergence of
communications media are gradually redefining the world and how we look at it. Being able to send
a text message on your phone or seeing live news from the other side of the globe are aspects of
These developments in technology also enable globalisation; without these communications media,
multinational corporations could not function. These same media are also enabling a whole new age
of protest against globalisation, economic exploitation
and the abuse of human rights, in response to the actions of the multinationals.
If you have an idea for a campaign, and you can communicate that campaign to people with words
and pictures, your campaign can be run online. The more novel, appealing and personalised you can
make that campaign, the better.
There is a clear need amongst campaign groups for more people to be able to design information
for the Internet, and to set up technical aspects of online campaigns such as
media streaming. Groups like the
Disturbance Theater are working on actions that you can develop online. Others, such as
collective, are developing action tools (to be launched on their web site in 2002) that
create the web pages or scripts you need to carry out actions - all you need to do is enter your
own information in the appropriate locations.
With dynamic content such as this, (e.g. interactive, clickable maps or information databases
supported by scripting) you can involve people in exploring an issue for themselves, in ways that
appeal and apply to their own circumstances.
Hacktivism exploits trends towards increasing
convergence within the world of
communications. As communications media consolidate and converge, there will be a greater
crossover between broadcast media, the Internet and conventional print journalism. This material
will all be accessed in a similar way to the WWW; this means that it can be indexed, and accessed
by search engines.
Increasingly, people will be able to access all these media automatically using a 'system agent';
this is a smart box that monitors broadcast channels and the Internet, and searches out
particular kinds of programme content. The first such devices went on sale in 2000. Digital
media, such as digital TV, carry much more than just images. They also carry information about
the programme itself. In the future these smart boxes could allow people to follow particular
interests and issues, such as protests and online activism, far more easily than at present.
In future, a well-designed online action could really reach a global audience, using audio and
video presentations as part of its message. Protest groups could broadcast material showing
environmental destruction, or human rights abuses, rather than just telling people about it.
In future, campaigns will not just be limited to text and graphics. Increasingly people will be
able to stream audio and video, even live
(the next generation of mobile phones theoretically has enough capacity for transmitting data to
'Net utopians have always viewed the Internet as an opportunity to develop a seamless network of
human experience and expression. As society goes online, so people's means of expressing approval,
dissatisfaction, and the desire for change, must go online too. This view has not been well
received by those who regard use of the Internet for lobbying and campaigning against the
activities of governments and corporations as 'virtual terrorism'. It is important that these
views do not prevail.
The Internet has the potential to be a unifying force for ordinary people against the worst
oppressions and excesses of humanity in general, but only if we can develop the idea of a
'global common'. To ensure that access
and use of the 'Net remains in the hands of ordinary people, it is essential that people begin to
express their desires for a better world online. To log on, load up, and speak out.
The GreenNet Internet Rights Project
GreenNet is the UK member
of the Association for Progressive
Communications (APC), and is leading the European section of the APC's
Civil Society Internet
Rights Project. The primary goal of this project is to provide the resources and tools
necessary to defend and expand space and opportunities for social campaigning work on the
Internet against the emerging threats to civil society's use of the 'Net. This involves
developing ways and means of defending threatened material and campaigning, as well as lobbying
to ensure a favourable legal situation for free expression on issues of public interest.
Until recently, the social norms of Internet communities, together with a very open architecture
based on supporting these norms, regulated the Internet, and was responsible for its openness.
The main forces of regulation now, however, are the business sector and government legislation.
Corporations and governments are pressing for fundamental changes in legislation and in the
architecture of the Internet. Unless challenged, these moves could radically change the nature of
the 'Net, making it a place of oppressive controls instead of freedom and openness. It is in this
context that APC's Internet Rights project is being developed.
This briefing is
in a series that document different aspects of work and communication across the Internet.
Although written from the perspective of the UK, much of its content is applicable to other parts
of Europe. There is continuing work on these issues, as part of the European project. If you wish
to know more about these briefings, or the European section of the APC Civil Society Internet
Rights Project, you should contact GreenNet. You should also check the APC's web site to see if
there is already a national APC member in your country who may be able to provide local help, or with
whom you may be able to work to develop Internet rights resources for your own country.
- Netspionage - The Global Threat to Information, William Boni and Dr Gerald L. Kovacich
(Butterworth-Heinemann 2000). Extracts from their writings, and similar industry commentators, are
- An example is the 'Urban75' -