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17/10/02 . by Jonathan Prynn . Evening Standard . London, UK
Web warriors confront boardrooms
On Saturday, demonstrators will gather outside McDonald's at London's King's Cross station to mark the end of a week of global protests against the burger giant. But while staff will monitor the gathering, it is a shadowy, anonymous enemy that is causing executive hearts at McDonald's Illinois HQ to skip a beat.
Their company is perhaps the biggest victim of the scourge of the modern boardroom: the anti-company website. On www.mcspotlight.org, web page after page is devoted to overthrowing the symbol of global capitalism. Once it was a shareholder shouting at the annual general meeting or a lone picket mounting a vigil outside company head offices who sent shivers down managerial spines. Now, it is the website, accessible to all, that is proving a much more effective opponent.
The anti-board website, calling for a change in personnel or strategy, has become a fact of modern company life - so much so that they are almost de rigueur. Some companies, to their horror, have more than one - Microsoft, for example, has no fewer than 21 websites complaining about its behaviour and sales policies.
In the early days of rebel websites, outraged companies would not hesitate to set their legal dogs on the cyber campaigners, threatening libel or trademark violation writs against them. However, for every site closed down, several others would spring up like bushfires. Even McDonald's quickly gave up its pursuit of damages from the McLibel Two, the pair of campaigners sued for defamation over the contents of leaflets they gave out near its restaurants.
The corporate consensus has changed. Rather than heavy-handed legal action that could easily be portrayed as bully-boy tactics, web campaigners were to be regarded as corporate gadflies, an irritation sure, but not worthy of response.
A British company that has received more than its share of attention from such websites is Shell. One, www.nuclearcrimes.com catalogues the lengthy correspondence between doughty campaigner John Dyer and senior executives at the company, including its top legal advisers, over alleged nuclear dumping at its Thornton research centre in Chester...in the 1960s. The letters betray the increasing sense of weariness overcoming the Shell men as letters from Dyer keep landing on their desks.
Michael Smyth, a litigation partner at City law firm Clifford Chance, says that even when a company decided to take legal action, the campaign groups had learned tricks such as moving the site offshore, usually Holland.
Generally, however, it was simply 'good corporate common sense' not to bother. One company that has ignored this advice is leisure firm 10 Group, which has launched legal action against a number of shareholders who made disparaging comments in an online chat room.
Other British companies that are the subject of web campaigns include British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Tesco, Orange and Vodafone, although there are far fewer than for American counterparts.
According to Dave Morris, one of the original McLibel Two, such websites are a vital counter to the glossy advertising images presented by companies with multi-million marketing and public relations budgets to burn. 'It gives the public a chance to read alternative views and judge for themselves,' he said.
At the very least, they give people a chance to
communicate and fight back against companies
that they usually feel powerless to influence or
gain redress from. As access to the internet
grows, companies ignore the cyber 'Why oh
why?' brigade at their peril. Just ask Ronald.