Chicago Sunday Times
Business Section
Monday 19 February

McLibel Case Heats Up On Internet

Beth Karlin
LONDON - European critics of McDonald Corp's food and business policies, two of whom are being sued for libel by the fast food chain, are taking their complaints to the Internet.

Last week, the McSpotlight World Wide Web page began to keep tabs on what has become England's longest trial, a 20-month-long, $5million libel action by the restaurant company against two jobless British vegetarians.

By distributing their criticism of the global food company over the Internet, to which more than 50 million people around the world have access, the web page's sponsors hope to stimulate debate about what is 'fair comment' and what is libel.

McDonald's said it is prepared for the challenge.

"If we see information in the future that is libelous on the Internet, we'll seek legal advice," said McDonald's U.K. spokesman, Mike Love. "This is a gray area now."

As debate continues on whether to regulate the Internet, most efforts to inhibit material has consisted of governemnt efforts to ban pornography.

"McDonald's would have a difficult time if they tried to challenge the same information on the Internet, as they have over here," siad Dan Mills, spokesman for the McLibel Support Campaign. "The Net is mostly based in the U.S. where libel laws aren't as harsh."

The Oak Park, Illinois-based company sued Helen Steel and Dave Morris for libel five and half years ago, after the two distributed pamphlets outside a London McDonald's outlet accusing the company of selling unhealthy food, engaging in abusive labour practices and fostering environmental destruction.

The London trial has seen McDonald's executives, among other things, defend Big Macs, French fries and Coca-Cola as healthy. Coke is nutritious, said one company executive, because it contains water, "and that's part of a balanced diet."

Edward Oakley, a senior vice-president of McDonald's U.K. Ltd., testified that polystyrene garbage could be considered a "benefit" to society because without it "you will end up with lots of vast, empty gravel pits all over the country," according to transcripts provided by the McLibel Support Campaign.

McDonald's has twice flown board members to London in failed attempts to negotiate a settlement with Steel and Morris, known to their supporters as the 'McLibel Two', that included offers of a sizeable charitable contribution by the company on the two protesters behalf.

"We wanted an apology and a promise that they wouldn't sue other critics," Morris said. McDonald's refused.

The protesters supporters contend the defendants criticisms aren't libelous, but rather 'fair comment' - and thus should be protected under British libel laws.

Meanwhile, the Web page's sponsor, McInformation Network, sees the international dissemination of the trial material as a test case for how the Internet will be regulated.

"McSpotlight will realign the debate to the fundamental issue," said McInformation Network, run by volunteers in 14 countries, in a statement. "Should the spread of information about matters of great public concern be controlled, and by whom?"

To access McSpotlight, type

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