Friday, 10 May 1996

By Claire Smith

Campaign Trail into Cyberspace

A new front opened up last week in the internet battle between green campaigners and McDonald's, the American fast food giant. Using the latest web browsing system, Netscape two, the campaigners have hijacked McDonald's own home page. It is now possible to scan through McDonald's corporate internet site while simultaneously viewing the counter-arguments of the environmentalists.

On the McDonald's side of the screen there are happy images of laughing children enjoying a family outing to a burger bar. Ronald McDonald shows you round all the food, gifts and services available from the hamburger giant. In between the pages, random quotes and anecdotes appear, casting McDonald's products as a quintessential part of the American way of life.

Scroll down the environmentalists' side of the story and you can click onto deforestation, the creation of non-biodegradable waste, and the pay and conditions of McDonald's staff. You can read nutritionists arguments against fast food and study a deconstruction of McDonald's website promotion.

The new Guided Tour and the Debating Room, a global discussion group, are the latest features of McSpotlight, the website set up in support of the McLibel Two, members of the London branch of Greenpeace currently embroiled in a long and expensive defamation suit brought by McDonald's.

Launched in February this year, McSpotlight has become the biggest grass-roots campaign on the net. It contains around 18,000 documents compiled by hundreds of campaigners around the world. In it's first month it was accessed one million times. McDonald's, which takes it's corporate image extremely seriously, hit the site 1,800 times in the first week. Ironically, millions have now seen the allegedly defamatory leaflet for which McDonald's took Helen Steel and Dave Morris to court.

Due to interest in the web site, the leaflet produced by a small group of environmental activists has been written about in newspapers around the world and made it to the front page of USA Today.

So far the McDonald's line has been that there is nothing it can do to stop the producers of the web site. The main server is based in the Netherlands, which has less restrictive libel laws than Britain.

However if the "McLibel" trial, which is due to end in November, goes in McDonald's favour, legal experts predict the multinational may try to take action. The way the Guided Tour "captures" trademark images, using an unauthorised link, could provide a test case over access to commercial copyrighted material. Already there have been in the United States test cases in which access providers have been forced to take action against people who put out defamatory information. A defamation bill currently before Parliament could make operators such as Compuserve responsible for libel. In theory the access provider could be made the equivalent of the publisher of a newspaper in terms of responsibility in that regard.

McSpotlight address:

Guided Tour:

Debating Room: