Wide Open to the Web Warriors

Activists are using the internet to fight large companies over ethical issues. Yet many major brand-owners lack a clear counter-strategy. 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, Nestlé, 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.