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Back | Programme Area: Markets, Business and Regulation (2000 - 2009)

Internetworking for Social Change: Keeping the Spotlight on Corporate Responsibility

The strategic manipulation of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to disseminate information across the networked planet has increasingly become a fact of life for many larger NGOs. Indeed, it seems that since the nascent on-line sharing of materials and analysis during 1992’s Rio Earth Summit, the importance of electronic communication has evolved and increased considerably. It appears that such “internetworking” has facilitated a globalization of civil society no less noteworthy than that which characterizes the corporate world.

But is this, perhaps, overstating the role of Internet communications in promoting the goals of sustainable development groups? Is the “virtual” world of globally linked computer terminals more an over-hyped fiction meant to make people feel better connected than it is an effective antidote to the isolation and powerlessness many articulate at the end of the century? This paper attempts to answer these questions, first by looking at the history of NGO globalization over the Internet and then by exploring the experiences of key international social and environmental organizations with Internet communications.

The Free Burma Coalition, the Zapatistas of Mexico, the Ogoni campaign and McSpotlight provide important early examples of the effective harnessing of ICTs to publicize environmental and social justice campaigns. In each of these situations, powerful corporate interests were highlighted as at least partially responsible for creating the conditions in which destructive development has occurred.

The proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MIA) is a more recent example of the successful use of e-mail and Web communications to force the spotlight on international trading practices. In this case, groups opposed to the MAI were able to build upon their post-Rio internetworking experiences to orchestrate a global campaign to publicize multilateral trade negotiations. Arguably, the MAI talks would have otherwise continued within the relative obscurity of the OECD—free from the glare of the media, which eventually picked up the story via the Internet.

Many of the NGOs critical of the MAI also participated in the questionnaire that informs this report; respondents articulated several key advantages and limitations of Internet communications. Among the main benefits cited are the interactivity and dissemination possibilities enabled through the combination of push and pull technologies; this advantage allows organizations to inform interested parties and also encourages them to become immediately active in Internet campaigns. An important challenge presented by the technology remains the question of access, with organizations noting that although their own on-line constituencies are growing exponentially, a significant percentage of the public remains off-line, particularly in the South.

The ability of global civil society organizations to transcend geographical divides via the Internet has not gone unnoticed. While corporations and business associations have been caught off guard in the battle for market share of the public mind on the Internet, their communications and public affairs departments are starting to use their own Web sites to promote not only their goods and products, but also their public personas as good citizens interested in promoting sustainable development.

While NGOs are ahead of the game for now, corporations are becoming savvier users of the Internet to convey their own perspectives of corporate social responsibility. As both NGO and corporate questionnaire respondents noted, one of the most attractive elements of the Internet is the ability to bypass the editorial control of the mainstream media. The direct communication offered through e-mail and Web sites means that global organizations now enjoy an unprecedented opportunity to control their relationship with the public.

As this paper suggests, several prominent international NGOs currently use Internet communications to successfully convey their messages and to keep public attention on corporate activity deemed socially or environmentally deleterious. There are, however, factors looming on the near horizon which threaten the relative democracy of the Internet as a means to also project the activist’s story onto the public imagination. The paper closes by recommending a cautious embrace of on-line communications—recognizing both their inherent limitations and their demonstrated competencies.
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  • Pub. Date: 1 Sep 1999
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1012-6511
    From: UNRISD