Nettin' in the bad guys

THE rapidly evolving, inexpensive international communication afforded by the Internet is becoming increasingly important for non-profit groups. It has been instrumental in the organisation of campaigns against trans-national companies (TNCS) by environmental groups, as well as in providing a forum for information dissemination on subjects such as endangered tigers.

Whereas many developing countries are now limited to e- mail and text-based communications because of older phone systems, in North America the graphical World Wide Web (www) has become the standard. Reliant on high-capacity phone lines and high speed modems, this technology was originally developed at CERN in Switzerland, where high-energy physics research is carried out. This medium enables effective presentations to be made at extremely low cost, with a potentially global distribution - effectively, a new method of publishing.

The www uses hypertext, in which, simply by clicking with a mouse on a highlighted piece of text, one is transferred to another site on the Internet. This has led to a radically different structuring of documents, which become integrated parts of an internationally distributed library.

The us-based International Tiger Information Centre (ITIC) is using the wv,,,w to provide a forum for tiger conservation groups in India and other places. Named after the five sub-species of tiger which are threatened with extinction, the five Tigers Web page provides 'home pag@s'for a number of groups, including the Wildlife Protection Society of India. The home pages provide information about the groups as well as, in many cases, a direct link to them by e-mail. Says ITic director Ron Tilson, "I think that the Indian tiger people now have a source of international exposure for their programmes which would be difficult, or impossible, without the five Tigers Web site."

Tilson is enthusiastic about the potential of the www in furthering the aims of his group- "The role of the ITIC is to provide the public, scientific, and conservation communities with an international forum for exchanging information relevant to the preservation of wild tigers across Asia and in zoos worldwide," he said. "The five Tigers Web page is most useful to me o in the sense that I now have an information source that can be accessed immediately by me, and whoever contacts me, rather than us searching through endless files."

The potential of cheap international communications in the organising of global campaigns has been dramatically demonstrated by the Rainforest Action Network (RAN). The consumer boycott which they have organised against the Mitsubishi corporation to protest its practices in the tropical timber trade, has made heavy use of the Internet. The San Francisco-based RAN is the organising the focal point of over 200 affiliated Rainforest Action Groups (RAGS) which are operational in many countries, including Canada, the USA, Russia, Japan, Italy, India, South America and Malaysia. According to Susan Eaton of the Calgary RAG in Canada, information on the boycott campaign is being continually updated and distributed via e-mail.

Eaton says that the Internet is important because most of the groups are volunteer-driven and funds are very tight. "The Internet enables us to access large amounts of information cheaply, and to correspond daily, if we wish, via e-mail," she says. "Certainly, when 'Vye ,re organising events and discussing various campaigns, the'Internet becomes invaluable. At the grassroots level, it's a very cost-effective way of communicating for cash-strapped groups."

The campaign has had a considerable impact on Mitsubishi, according to Eaton. "Because there is a Mitsubishi campaign and boycott on the World Wide Web now, Mitsubishi is talking to RAN and saying, what do you really want us to do?" she says. The corporation is concerned that the information is being read around the world, and this has brought them to the bargaining table.

AS TNcs become increasingly dominant forces in the sometimes poorly regulated world of international trade, it may be that the Internet will be an important tool to develop international standards in areas such as environmental regulation. Environmental groups frequently complain that the Mitsubishis of the world are able to armtwist national governments to lower standards by simply threatening to move their business to other countries with less regulation. With the international reach of the Internet, however, such practices will at least be impossible to carry out without the world being aware of them.

Philip Carter is a freelance journalist living in British Columbia, Canada