Activists who attack McDonald's as the epitome of corporate evil have gone on-line, opening a new front in a war that has raged for nearly two years in a British libel trial.
The anti-McDonald's forces accuse the hamburger giant of trying to stifle criticism. So they have fought back by creating "McSpotlight," an Internet site that contains 25 megabytes of their attacks on the Big Mac.
McSpotlight is constantly growing, with untold pages of testimony and documents from the court case, dubbed the "McLibel" trial, as well tidbits including a video clip "linking McDonald's Corp. with rainforest destruction." The activists call McSpotlight the "final nail in the coffin of McDonald's global censorship strategy."
McDonald's has been in court since June 28,1994, in England's longest-ever civil trial, trying to show that a leaflet -- entitled "What's wrong with McDonald's? Everything they don't want you to know" -- is a pack of inflammatory lies. The leaflet accuses McDonald's of promoting an unhealthy diet, paying its workers low wages, plotting against trade unions and exploiting animals.
McDonald's says it's trying to set the record straight to protect its reputation. Its foes say the corporation is using high-powered lawyers to squash valid criticism.
The McSpotlight site further touches on the material found in the leaflet and the happenings in the trial. For example, McSpotlight gleefully points out the response given by Ed Oakley, the McDonald's head of purchasing for northern Europe, when he was asked on the witness stand why it was environmentally friendly for McDonald's to produce mountains of throw-away packaging. "Otherwise you'd end up with lots of vast, empty gravel pits all over the country," Oakley testified.
"It's not that we're going to put a stop to McDonald's," said Franny Armstrong, one of about three dozen people in England alone who are working on McSpotlight. Other anti-McDonald's activists are involved in the project in 13 other countries. "We're trying to inspire people, so they can stand up against the multinationals."
With such information circulating on the Internet, McDonald's may have no good ways to fight back. "We're not aware of any action that can be taken," said McDonald's spokesman Mike Love, noting that legal issues of content on the Internet are part of a "wider public debate" that has yet to yield any conclusions. "Our position is the allegations that are made are untrue, regardless of what the format is," Love said. "Our main concern is that people should not be misled. We believe the repetition of these allegations, in any form, is misleading." Many of the McSpotlight statements from McDonald's executives are "short quotes taken out of long pieces of evidence and taken out of context," Love said.
Conscious of Britain's libel laws, which are viewed as being quite favourable to plaintiffs, the McSpotlight activists made sure that their Internet information is stored offshore, in the Netherlands. There are "mirror" sites, containing copies of everything, in the United States, Finland and New Zealand. Also, McSpotlight is set up separately from the activists, Dave Morris and Helen Steel, who are in court with McDonald's.
Still, the McSpotlight organisers worry McDonald's may fight back by going to court, moving into uncharted legal territory. Thus, they maintain a fair bit of secrecy. "We can't say who's doing what," Armstrong said. "McDonald's might sue us."
It remains unclear how many people are interested in sifting through an electronic library that contains many thousands of words - including the original anti-McDonald's leaflet that prompted the court fight. At least 2,000 people looked up the leaflet during McSpotlight's first month of operations, although computer technician Ben Leamy, on the side of the activists, said there could have been more readers than that. Leamy estimates 10,000 people logged onto the site in the Netherlands during the first month -- with maybe a similar number accessing the information from the foreign mirror sites.
The McSpotlight people boast that they spent no money going on-line. All the equipment and time was volunteered -- and they have received offers of free help from professional graphic designers and others who found the McSpotlight pages on their computers.
Not that they will get a completely free ride. "We haven't gotten our phone bill yet," Armstrong said. "I dread it."
EDs: McSpotlight Internet address is http://www McSpotlight.org/