David vs. McGoliath (A modern day web battle)

The decision-makers at One McDonald’s Plaza, Oak Brook, Illinois must be regretting the day they decided to sue David Morris and Helen Steel for libel. If you’ haven’t heard of the McLibel two yet then standby, they’re coming to a website near you.

On October 16th 1986 members of London Greenpeace distributed a pamphlet entitled “What’s wrong with McDonald’s? – Everything they don’t want you to know”. The pamphlet takes issue with McDonald’s and links the multinational fast food giant to many questionable business-practices. The $30 billion a year corporation felt that they were under attack from London Greenpeace and after infiltrating the organisation issued a writ against five of its members in order to stop further publication of the pamphlet. Three of the five apologised to McDonalds and withdraw stating that they couldn’t afford to defend themselves. Morris and Steel, whose combined income is less than 7000 British pounds p.a., decided that free speech was on trial and defended themselves without any legal support.

The trial ran for a record 313 days, the longest ever in Britain. The verdict came in on the 19th June 1997 and Justice Bell awarded 60 000 pounds to McDonalds in damages. He found that the contents of the Greenpeace pamphlet were libellous but conceded that McDonalds did mislead the public in a 1990 campaign claiming that its packaging was recycled. He also found that some of McDonald’s promotional claims that their food had a positive nutritional benefit “did not match” the reality of a product that was high in saturated fat and salt.

Having little or no resources to fight the case Steel and Morris appealed for help using an Internet web site called McSpotlight. They received 35 000 pounds in support from supporters around the world. McDonalds spent 8 000 pounds a day on their legal team and don’t make no mention of the trial on their website. Although the trial is over, the McSpotlight website has gained a life of its own and is now run by a group call the McInformation Network. “McDonald’s spends over $1.8 billion a year broadcasting their glossy image to the world. This is a small space for alternatives to be heard”, the website claims.

Lower budget it may be but it certainly isn’t small. 21 000 pages combine all the information pertinent to the trial with some cheeky features like an alternative feedback forum that asks users for “really honest” comments about McDonalds and then feeds the information directly into the official McDonalds web site. The full text of the original pamphlet, subject of the McLibel trial, is also included on the site. This is a brave move when one considers that McDonalds was prepared to spend nearly 10 million pounds and 11 years trying to stop the publication of the same brochure.

In an article in The Independent (UK), Tim Hardy makes the point that it is almost impossible for McDonalds to silence what is published on the Internet. Even the most ardent litigators would struggle to fight a battle against web site publishers located in 22 countries who publish four identical sites in Austria, Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand.

One can load the McDonalds website in one window and the McSpotlight website in another and then compare the messages. While both are naturally biased towards their own perspectives, it is fascinating to see such a standoff of opinions that would normally be prohibitively expensive for the defendants in any other medium.

The more than 100 press releases dating back more than a year on the official McDonalds web site make no mention of the trial or even their victory. Perhaps a sign that it hasn’t exactly been a public relations coup for the multinational giant.

In recent years corporates in the United States have been affronted with individuals and law firms taking them on in class action lawsuits. Perhaps the efforts of the McLibel two are the start of new trend which should be worrying the public relations departments of multinational corporations. The World Wide Web has given individuals the ability to publish their message and to group communities together around a particular cause.

Relatively easy to set up, these initiatives are very difficult to stop especially when they cross international borders. Corporations would be well advised to take this new threat into account. If two almost broke individuals can mobilise such a movement against a company with the second biggest brand in the world, who knows what can be done to lesser corporates.

After action satisfaction – real people relax with … the Internet

Yesterday Mississippi became the first American state to be compensated by tobacco companies for the cost of treating ailing smokers. The state received $170 million, the first in a series of annual payments that will eventually total $3.36 billion over 25 years. Are these the first cracks in the tobacco industry? An industry that has an almost 100% success rate in defending both individual lawsuits and government attempts at regulation?

As individuals we don’t stand much chance against companies who can afford to spend millions of dollars telling us that smoking is actually not that bad. Advertisements showing beautiful people playing with expensive toys in the Caribbean are appealing. I’m now at an age where I know to differentiate the underlying message from the images flashed at me in movie cinemas, but as an impressionable teenager I wasn’t quite so discerning. The subliminal messages from cigarette companies are clear – smoking is healthy, cool and allows you to enjoy a better lifestyle.

Is it possible to do anything to oppose this message which seems a little perverse?

There is a group of people who have got together and are fighting back against “Big Tobacco”. They aren’t starting class action law suites and they’re not picketing outside the corporate offices of tobacco companies. They have grouped together in an Internet newsgroup called ‘alt.support.stop-smoking’ and they are quietly helping each other to kick the habit by breaking down the myths around cigarettes. This quiet pragmatic approach may not seem like much but when there are no more smokers left in the world, there will be no more tobacco companies. A powerful conclusion.

alt.support.stop-smoking kicks off each morning with members reporting back on how they fared the evening before. These postings are typically about the terrific willpower that is needed to kick the addiction. Smokers and ex-smokers from around the world share stories of how they have made it through another 24 hours.

A typical day on alt.support.stop-smoking can consist of anywhere between 20 to 100 messages. Members share their secrets and tips while supporting one another. One can feel the joy as another smoke free week is completed or the disappointment as temptation overcomes willpower and someone has to start again from day one.

The group also periodically includes information on software and web sites that are available to make the transition from smoker to non-smoker that little bit easier. If you’ve been thinking of giving up but were worried about getting support for what is a difficult task, then look no further than alt.support.stop-smoking. The group members, who have a lot of things in common, are a never-ending source of conversation, friendship and inspiration.

One day we will probably look back on the tobacco industry like we do today on slavery. It will be quite unbelievable that the world ever accepted it as normal to smoke. In the meantime, if you’re having trouble fighting off the clutches of those little white smelly things – perhaps you should look for support on the Internet. A lot of others have, and with great success. If you’re a non-smoker already, then drop a message of encouragement to those on their way to joining you.

The Internet – Where to from here?

It has become increasingly difficult for us to come to terms with where computers and the Internet are taking us. I often get asked where I see things going over the next couple of years. It seems that external forces are tossing us around beyond control and the pace of change is so fast that we never quite get to grips with what is happening. This in turn leads to high stress levels and a general frustration with all technology. I hate stress so have decided to don the beta version of my futurist cap and take a closer look at where I think the Internet will take us in the near future.

The first thing that is likely to happen is that corporations are going to start getting a lot more savvy and imaginative about what they do with this technology. The days of getting the MD’s son or the IS department to whack together a web site are over. Companies are looking for real utility over the web and want to get a return on every cent they spend on their website.

The Meta group (one of the computer industry’s most respected market research companies) has just released the results of their survey of American corporations who have implemented Intranets (computer systems inside their company using Internet technology). Among other things the report stated that 80% of companies surveyed had achieved an average return on investment of 38% on their Intranet developments.

I would be interested to see a similar statistics for corporate Internet web sites. I believe that only those companies who have embraced their web sites and are working hard to incorporate it into their business will get any return at all. Those who put together a few pages and waited for the customers to arrive are probably still waiting.

The website of the future is likely to encompass far more than the desires of the marketing department. Companies are going to want to use their websites to compliment their other interactions with clients and business partners. The drive will be efficiency and a high return on investment. These new look web sites are going to look more and more like business applications.

In the 1970’s the airlines grouped together around one innovator who provided a central booking system to the industry. Innovative companies in the next few years are going to steal the market from their competitors by being able to provide the most functional client interactions over the web. Slow starters will end up using their competitors systems to carry out their business.

The web will also start to play more of a role in other business applications. It will not be uncommon to find a web application (or weblication) linking together bits and pieces of many other systems that already exist in an organisation. Clever programming will allow customers to update their own information and get details of previous transactions.

The next thing I think we will see is the demise of the PC in corporations. Let’s face it, these things are expensive to run. I spent a few years working for a large corporate (for my sins) and was shocked at the amount of maintenance a PC requires. Thousands of dollars are spent each year just to keep a PC running, that is over and above the original capital cost which depreciates faster than you can pay it off.

Network Computers, the new thin clients that have processing power but store almost nothing locally are likely to start replacing the PC in the near future. The advantages are numerous not least of which the software that runs on them is stored centrally, allowing a single administrator to control upgrades. I remember the poor technicians running around corporate offices updating PC’s. It was a bit like painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge. As soon as you finish one end you need to start again at the beginning.

I’ve found that a good rule of thumb when trying to keep up with technology is to read about the latest developments but only consider implementing something when it is 3 to 6 months old. Trying to stay on the bleeding edge is – well – exactly that.

All in all nothing too much to worry about. The secret is not to resist. The more you resist the more difficult change will be.