The Toronto Sun.
Wednesday, June 18, 1997

Rebels with many causes

The Web has become a global soapbox

by Ian Harvey

Got a cause? A pet-peeve? Something that just sticks in your craw?

Get thee online brother and find a space for rant.

It used to be that disgruntled consumers and fringe political groups had to content themselves with the odd protest and rally outside corporate offices.

No more. The World Wide Web is a global soapbox for everyone from white supremacists to tree hugging vegans.

Perhaps the most dramatic example is the McLibel Trial in England, which ends tomorrow after 11 years of grinding through the courts.

It revolves around two scruffy but earnest environmentalist activists who distributed leaflets decrying McDonald's corporate policy and products outside one of the hamburger giant's British outlets.

Ronald and the boys sued for libel. And that would have been the end of the story but for Helen Steel, a 31-year-old part-time bar worker and Dave Morris, a 42-year-old, single parent who decided to defend themselves instead of just folding their tent.

Eleven years and 180 witnesses later, the controversy has globally embarrassed the hamburger giant not just because of the traditional media coverage, the book and documentary movie that have resulted, but also because of the role the Internet has played in highlighting the battle to the world.

That tiny pamphlet which a handful of people would have read before consigning to the trash has mutated and been distributed to two million readers. The linchpin in their protest is the Internet where McSpotlight offers a staggering 21,000 pages of diatribe about McDonald's.

But McDonald's is not the only conglomerate or business interest which has tasted the lash of the Net. The Flaming Ford Owners site is credited with being the "last straw" that nudged authorities into a recall of 8.7 million Fords in Canada and the U.S. -- the largest recall of a single maker ever -- because of a faulty ignition switch that caused some cars to spontaneously combust. Also check the Chrysler problem page, another repository of owners' complaints.

While the lure of the Net might be its ability to create a platform for just about any cause, there are pitfalls, warns Dr. David Jones of Electronic Frontier Canada, an Internet advocacy group.

"For example the 1988 Broxtowe case in England in which 10 adults were charged with sexually assaulting 21 children of their extended family. The allegations included ritualistic satanic child abuse and it had all been investigated and was found to be completely unsubstantiated," he said. "But the city council didn't want to release the report which made their agency look bad. A couple of journalists got hold of it and posted it on the Net."

Nottinghamshire council struck back, setting loose their lawyers and claiming the document was copyrighted and forcing the site to shut down. Netizens responded to the overt censorship by "mirroring" the site, that is hosting it on their own servers as a way of protest.

Mirror Sites

"Then the council methodically went after every mirror site," said Jones. "One of them was a guy in British Columbia who called us for advice. The point is was he prepared to spend $15,000 and go to England to fight for a principal? He shut it down but left the letter they'd sent him posted. That way a curious user could use the information and search the web for another mirror site."

The protest however, is still growing and more sites are posting the banned material, not because of content, but on principal. At least one lawyer now says British copyright law has no force in Canada in this this case.

But take on a corporation in your own backyard and things change. Jones said a Calgary man had his "Futile Shop" site quickly shut down when Future Shop complained of its content, said Jones, adding that libel is libel, whether it's in cyberspace or on newsprint.

But fair comment is still fair play. And as the McSpotlight and Nottinghamshire phenomenons show, censorship is the one hot button sure to generate support among fellow Netizens who will take up the banner in sympathy, even if it's just on principal.

Copyright © 1997 by The Toronto Sun. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.