Last updated: September 2014
Reasons to be cheerful about the Internet
In recent years, the utopian view of online technologies has become marginalised. State interventions on the grounds of ‘national security’ and the emergence of huge profit-seeking monopolies now loom large over this space.
In the midst of these new battles, it is easy to lose sight of the massive positive transformations that have taken place over the last 20 years. This article presents ten reasons to be cheerful about the internet.
Ten reasons to be cheerful about the Internet:
- 1. Finding information is quick and easy.
- 2. Huge volumes of data are available to everyone with an online computer.
- 3. The economic barriers of entry to publishing information are near to zero.
- 4. The internet favours non-hierarchical networks – think Occupy and the Arab Spring.
- 5. Large groups can respond rapidly to events.
- 6. The internet is a naturally international space, breaking down barriers and fear of the unknown.
- 7. Freedom of expression is open to (almost) all.
- 8. The internet makes it harder for powerful interests to suppress dissent.
- 9. Libel laws are harder to enforce.
- 10. Learning from activists across the world is easy.
Consumer research and campaigning
Ethical Consumer began life before the internet was conceived and, as Jane Turner describes (Ethical Consumer is 25), we gathered our information from the local library and held the information on a card-based index.
Nowadays the same research can be done by someone anywhere in the world in a fraction of the time.
Getting people out onto the streets to protest, perhaps against the activities of a particular retailer, was equally tricky. With no email list or Facebook pages, we had to print and distribute leaflets and posters, and phone people on their landlines. This was practical, if hard work, in our own city – but very difficult to roll out nationally. Nowadays a global campaign against an errant transnational can be up and running in hours with a successful and established online activist network like 38 Degrees.
Shifting power from the centre?
The internet has increased the power of consumers over firms: the very wide availability of price and quality information has made it harder for companies to succeed with less good products. The ‘long tail’ of e-commerce has also made it viable for companies to stock much larger ranges of specialist products. Harder to quantify is the extent to which the internet has made it more difficult for companies to suppress uncomfortable truths about their products.
A huge growth of ethical product sales can also be observed to have occurred over the same period as the growth of the internet. Some of this will be down to the ‘reach’ that the internet has given to campaigners. The 10,000 people that read Ethical Consumer’s print edition, for example, are dwarfed by the 700,000 that read our content online every year. The online reach of other information providers, such as Greenpeace, is far greater still.
We do know that the threat of libel action – a huge risk to citizen activists when Ethical Consumer first began in 1989 – has largely dissipated. Some of this is down to legal reform, but most of it will be due to the fact that an accusation suppressed in one country can instantly resurface on new servers in a different jurisdiction and be shared around the world.
The price of liberty is eternal vigilance
Some powerful interests, for which these changes have been disadvantageous, are seeking to claw back control in some areas. This is inevitable. There are paradoxes at play here too. The tendency of the internet to make transparency easier and secrecy difficult, for example, can work both for and against campaigners.
In addition, campaigns against the unethical behaviour of internet giants – such as tax avoidance by Facebook and Google – will almost certainly involve having to use these companies’ tools in campaigns against them.
People need to campaign to stop the erosion of democratic and workplace rights won by their parents. Internet rights are simply new territories which need defending in the same way. Consumer choices are just one way of exerting influence in this area. There are many new projects setting out to defend this space.
Ten of the best online campaign groups
An online community of over 2.4 million people that uses the networking power of the web to conduct progressive campaigns both online and offline.
Ethical Consumer worked with them in July 2012 in a successful campaign to get Olympic partners to pay tax on profits made during the Games and, in 2013, to help people switch to energy companies that pay a fairer rate of tax.
As mentioned on page 35 they recently launched a successful action against TTIP and a big focus of their current work is to save the NHS from privatisation.
A fledgling campaign that grew out of the living wage petition. Since then AA have started a new website helping wean people off Amazon. They also recently set up a fake product on the Amazon website to sell a living wage.
Most impressively they actually garnered a response from Amazon, a company known for its media silence when it comes to criticisms of its operations. They will be running a new online campaign with Ethical Consumer, SumOfUs and others in December so watch this space.
A network of online activists. Broadly speaking, they oppose internet censorship and control, and the majority of their actions target governments, organisations, and corporations that they accuse of censorship.
‘Anons’ were also early supporters of the global Occupy movement and the Arab Spring. Their corporate targets have included PayPal, MasterCard and Visa over their withdrawal of service from WikiLeaks.
A global campaigning community that facilitates signing petitions, funding media campaigns and direct actions, emailing, lobbying governments and organising “offline” protests and events.
Avaaz campaign at Leveson Inquiry, photo credit Avaaz
It recently won a huge victory in Tanzania, stopping a project where local people were being forcibly evicted to make way for a big-game hunting company to bring in tourists to shoot wildlife. 1.7 million people signed a petition before Avaaz members funded adverts in local papers calling on the government to stop the project. They then supported a march on the capital, where community leaders camped outside the Prime Minister’s office for three weeks.
Another global petition site that mobilises people for progressive causes. In the UK they recently helped to get Jane Austen on UK banknotes.
Two Change.org anti-Amazon petitions got significant support. The first, about Amazon’s tax avoidance, came from Frances and Keith Smith who run the Kenilworth and Warwick independent bookshops. It gained over 150,000 signatures. The second was the petition that started Amazon Anonymous and asked Amazon to pay a living wage, which received around 70,000 signatures in less than a month.
The environmental organisation has become incredibly adept at online campaigning, with its petitions often gaining millions of signatures. Its latest ‘Save the Arctic’ petition has over 5 million signatures.
Move Your Money
A switching site, which is powered by research from Ethical Consumer, that has led to thousands of consumers switching banks from one of the big six to a more ethical provider.
The concept originated in the US in the wake of the financial crisis before being taken up in the UK.
A global organisation that runs online petitions for “a better global economy.” They often campaign against corporate malpractice: for the fair treatment of workers and better environmental standards.
SumofUs TTIP campaign, photo credit: Flickr.
They are currently actively campaigning against Suncor (a company involved in the Canadian Tar Sands) and Monsanto (which is pushing more GM crops into Europe).
This grass roots movement campaigns against austerity policies and tax avoidance. It started in the wake of the financial crisis targetting corporates that were getting away with avoiding millions in tax despite cuts to public services.
UK Uncut demonstrations, photo credit Dominic Alves
It uses the web to organise coordinated street protests throughout the UK, usually at high street stores. Targets have included Vodafone, Boots and Starbucks.
Perhaps the most important campaigning organisation so far this century. The release of classified documents on the site has helped to shed light onto some of the most heinous actions carried out by governments and companies alike.
Wikileaks Truck, photo credit: Flickr.
Recently they released documents relating to a trade agreement that will follow on behind TTIP should this be successfully implemented. The Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) documents outline how corporations and states are pushing for a deregulation of financial services among 50 potential signature countries including the US and those in the EU.
Technology companies defend the internet
A number of the companies covered in these guides are opposing legislation that threatens the internet and they are working to promote security measures online. This wave of internet activism is rooted in the knowledge that popular websites used by millions of people can have significant power when they work together.
On 18th January 2012, there was an internet blackout as almost a billion people were blocked from more than 115,000 websites as internet companies went “on strike” to protest against legislation in the USA which threatened the operation of the internet as we know it. The Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) were shelved indefinitely by Congress two days later. “If they return”, says the SOPAStrike website, “we must be ready.” Participants included Google, Wikipedia, Reddit, Mozilla, Tumblr, Vimeo, Flickr, and Imgur.
The Internet Defense League says that “The Internet Blackout was just the beginning. Together, our websites and personal networks can mobilize the planet to defend the internet from bad laws & monopolies. Are you in?” Through its members, the IDL broadcasts actions across the internet. Mozilla, Reddit and Imgur are members.
The IDL is backed by Fight For the Future, whose current focus is resisting net neutrality legislation in the USA through the Battle for the Net campaign. This helped to mobilise nearly a million people to comment on the legislation in July 2014. It is supported by companies including Reddit, Imgur and Tumblr (owned by Yahoo) and other organisations including Greenpeace.
A broader coalition of companies and campaign groups, under the banner Reset The Net, are working to promote the spread of internet security tools in response to the Edward Snowden revelations covered in our article on surveillance.
The group says, “We can stop mass surveillance, by building proven security into the everyday Internet”. The 5th June 2014 was declared the day of action for privacy and freedom on the internet, and websites were encouraged to run ‘splash screens’ to spread NSA-resistant privacy tools. Participants included Reddit, Duck Duck Go, Imgur, Tumblr, Mozilla, Google, Dropbox, Startpage, Ixquick, Google, Mozilla and Twitter. A Privacy Pack is available on the website. More actions are planned.