Nettime's_roving_reporter on Wed, 21 Jul 1999 21:51:49 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Web Wars

this comes from the oil industry paper energy day...

July 9 1999          ENERGY DAY 13

Tangled Web is a new weapon in war against the big hitters Corporate
rebels are using the Internet to spread their single issue politics. Helen
Cart surfs a virtual world of disinformation. 

The Internet is loved by many and loathed by some. But whatever your
thoughts on it, you can't go away from it and still get ahead. It's a
rarity among oil companies, however small or little known, to find one
without a website, even if the information given on that site only extends
to the company logo and a contact address. But it's a brave company which
opens itself up to criticism, abuse and possible ridicule in the public
domain. The use of the Internet as an open discussion centre, a free-
for-all uncensored forum for praise or attack on a company, is a powerful
and constantly developing phenomenon which some hope will serve the
purpose of heightening a claim to be open, honest and accessible. Pressure
groups have long known the value of the Web and have never failed to use
it to their advantage. Activists who occupied Shell HQ earlier this year
even used it to relay information and pictures via mobile phones and
satellite technology to the outside world after Shell had responded to the
intrusion by turning the power off. But it is not just the energy industry
which comes under fire from these protectors. Common gripes of those
attacking metal and minerals producers, as well as oil and gas firms, are
alleged forced labour, backing of harsh military regimes, human rights
abuses, and lack of environmental concern. BA, Nestle and McDo nald's are
three of the non-oil "big names" which have come under the rebel fire. In
the oft-criticised energy industry, action groups quickly realised that
the fastest way to reach the widest audience is to create a website
dedicated to their cause. Why mailshot a list of names when everyone knows
that most unsolicited mail goes in the bin? "New websites are cropping up
even day and there has been a big increase in the number of sites set up
for dissident purposes," says Keith Mathieson of solicitors Davies Arnold
Cooper. "It is an ideal way for people to get their message across very

Common countries highlighted are Nigeria, Myanmar (Burma), Colombia,
India, Bangladesh and Angola and, as everyone who likes to while away time
after the nine-to-five while appearing to be doing some real overtime will
concur, the wily Web surfer can stumble upon some real gems. The
statements below are all taken from the official website of a major oil
company. Some are startling, some less so. Some may be true, many will not
be.  Some are written in genteel language, others in rather more flowery
terms. All are open to public scrutiny. "It's sheer absurdity and a
bizarre tragedy that (this company) is again blowing its trumpets on
principled values and sustainable development. Whose (sic) standard of
values other than its own double standards and who's to benefit from its
SD initiatives other than its own capitalistic empire of ... bureaucrats?" 
"I was just thinking what an horrific lie is being propagated from your PR
rooms to the people of the world, and what a disgustingly brutal company
you are running... " "(This company) still practices its die-hard
COLONIALISTIC overtures which have been deeply ingrained in the hangover
brains of its arrogant expat exports! Sometimes it makes one wonder if
(this company) treats overseas operating companies as dumping grounds for
its brainwashed professionally-trained COLONIALISTS!!" "Open communication
my foot! Within (this company) itself there is no sincerity in any
openness at an and here you go telling the world how engaging and open you
are .. what ********* can you all be! There then follows a reply from the
company in question, emphasising its desire that the site remain
uncensored to in crease "open communication" and expressing concern about
schoolchildren who might be reading the site. The authors of some of the
contributions to this particular website may appear two sandwiches short
of a picnic and their accusations may well not have a grain of truth in
them But what is important is that this company, a major multinational,
allowed itself to be the subject of such defamation, by creating such a
site where absolutely anyone can write abso lutely anything and have it
seen by anyone with access to the Internet One such company is Shell,
when, amid all the attacks on its social policy, human rights record and
environmental performance, it took the step of establishing an online
comments box where anything goes and, better still, every
question/query/comment gets a response from Shell itself. Ari Miller of
the Shell Internet team says: "The logic of the site is that we felt a lot
of companies who have discussion forums censor them and we felt people
would be reluctant to send in postings if they thought they were going to
get cut up.  We may have to have another look at the language that is
being used and we have yet to take anything out " 

He says the site is a way for Shell to keep pace with the vast amount of
material written about the company on the Web. "There are comments about
Shell all over the Internet and you can't stop it happening We would
rather see the comments and give our response to them. We want to be
totally transparent " But what about the webpages which are run by
opponents of a company?  One such site, established by the Shell
Shareholders Association, which has been offline as a case brought against
Shell UK by John Donovan of Don Marketing, who alleges that the oil major
stole his marketing ideas, is taken to the High Court. Donovan's
shareholder group has previously said its most frequent visitors to its
site are from Shell companies around the world "who must be astounded at
what we have to say" Another website set up by rebel shareholders in the
UK's Premier Oil appears to have been an excellent example in the use of
the Internet as a tool to get a message across and a fine lesson in public
relations, whatever the eventual outcome of the group's angry rantings
about Premier's strategy and stock price. The professional and highly
detailed site displays the CVs of a proposed new management team, the
group's malaise with Premier's finances and investment strategy and its
plans for Premier Oil's re- birth should the group, currently seeking an
EGM, succeed in its bid to take over the company. Having said all that,
gone are the days when that website was updated at intensely regular
intervals. The site, it is claimed, has had just under 100,0v0 hits as at
July 2 But it hasn't been updated since June 1; you have to keep the PR
wagon rolling if you want to sustain the interest. 

"The web has proved itself to be not only a very public forum for
conveying information but also a very democratic one," say the site's
administrators "Information is disseminated at the same time not only to
all the 23,000 shareholders of Premier but also to analysts, the Press and
even the employees of Premier." The group estimates it has saved around
6,250 in the equivalent cost of sending mailings at the frequency of hits
on its site, "a phenomenal return on the approximate 200 to date of
disbursements spent on setting up and maintaining the site." It claims
that Premier's institutional shareholders are some of the most regular
visitors to the website, together with Premier itself and its financial
advisers Schroders. The group has received a high level of exposure but
could face trouble from Premier for using the company name. 

The group's founder, lawyer Dr Peter Felter, says it is still very much
"there" and Premier's management "should continue to look over their
shoulders nervously". A spokesman for Premier, meanwhile, says as far as
the company itself is concerned, the whole sorry saga is history and
Felter "has died a death". Lawyers say that the very Nature of the
Internet often makes it difficult to track down the authors and publishers
of potentially libellous material and for that reason, many companies are
reluctant to try and take action. "A communication on the Internet is just
as actionable as one which is posted," says Mathieson. "The difference is
that you don't always know how to get hold of the people who are operating
it; they may be doing it from their backroom One solution is to take
action against the service provider. Once they have been notified that the
contents of a site carried by the server is potentially libellous, they
can be held liable." The regulations concerning use of a company name are
hazy, however, and largely boil down to whether a dissident group was
seeking to benefit from the reputation and goodwill associated with an
established name or whether the name or logo is already registered as a
trademark. Successful action becomes even more difficult if the dissident
group makes it clear that the site has no connection with and is not
authorised by the target company, as Felter and his team have done. 
Perhaps targeted companies hope that fewer people see the Net than the
newspaper; the latter can just be picked up after all, whereas the
Internet does need some degree of patient navigation. But with estimates
putting Internet usage at 83m people in Europe alone by 2002, perhaps
companies had better keep looking over their shoulders after all. As
Dallas, Texas-based Wavo Corp's web monitoring service WebWatch puts it; 
"The Web is the fastest communications medium on earth.  Within seconds of
a change to a web page, the new information is accessible to users all
over the world "Which is a real advantage when you are communicating. And
a real headache when you're trying to monitor that communication." A
lesson to be learned? 

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