NetAction Notes

Published by NetAction Issue No. 14 February 24, 1997
Repost where appropriate. See copyright information at end of message.


Act locally, organize globally
Is it outreach, or is it spam?
Bearing witness on the Web
How to Help NetAction

Act locally, organize globally

In the fall of 1996, a group of Swiss activists called "Le Drapeau Noir" began planning for a world-wide International Day Against Police Brutality, to be held sometime during the spring of 1997. Another group of activists in Montreal, Canada, Citizens Against Police Brutality, learned of the Swiss group's plan and decided to participate. COBP, which is the French acronym for the Montreal group, also decided to initiate an online outreach effort to involve other human rights organizations in this event.

COBP's subsequent experience provides an excellent case study in online activism. The group's experience demonstrates what a powerful tool the Internet can be for grassroots organizers. Individually, the participating organizations are acting locally, within their own communities. But by communicating with each other online, they are also organizing globally. No specific date has been set for the International Day Against Police Brutality, but human rights organizations all over the world are planning events within their own community.

In late November, COBP sent out an E-mail alert announcing that the global demonstration was being planned, and suggesting that other groups consider organizing their own events for the same week or month. They asked that organizations planning to participate let them know.

In mid-January, the Montreal activists sent out a second E-mail alert to everyone who had responded to their first communication. The Montreal activists had been contacted by activists and organizations all over the world, including print and radio journalists, representatives of organizations working against racism, fascism, and imperialism, prisoner rights activists, human rights activists concerned with political prisoners and prisoners of war, activists working for the decriminalization of prostitution, and others advocating for full rights for gays and lesbians.

What these diverse organizations had in common was firsthand experience with police brutality. The Montreal activists decided to send out an E-mail exchange list with contact information on groups and individuals that were willing to be listed. Their intent was to enable like-minded activists to share ideas and information across geographic and political boundaries.

The first E-mail exchange list, sent in late January, had contact information on 17 organizations. The most recent, sent two days ago, listed 39 contacts in organizations that span the globe. Global networking among human rights organizations is clearly off to a very good start.

What makes this effort even more remarkable is that Dee, the Montreal activist who has been responsible for most of the online outreach, had just gone online two weeks before the outreach effort was initiated. Of course, she made some mistakes, like those I discuss in the article that follows. But the success of this online organizing effort should make it clear that E-mail can truly empower us to act locally while organizing -- and thinking -- globally.

Is it outreach, or is it spam?

In the hands of an experienced organizer or activist, E-mail can be a powerful tool for outreach. The experience of the Montreal human rights activists, described in the previous article, demonstrates that even inexperienced users of the Internet can make effective use of E-mail for outreach and organizing on a global scale. A simple keystroke or a single click of the mouse, and you reach thousands of people, almost instantaneously.

But is it outreach, or is it spam? As more activists go online, more complaints about unsolicited E-mail, or spam, are sure to arise. I should know, because I've been guilty myself of overstepping the bounds of "netiquette." Since I learned the hard way, the advice I'm about to offer is based on experience.

First, some things to avoid:

Now, some tips on making your E-mail outreach effective:

Bearing witness on the Web

While E-mail is by far the most effective Internet tool for outreach, Web pages are also being used in creative ways by human rights activists. Derechos Human Rights,, is a new organization working for global respect of human rights, compliance with international human rights and humanitarian standards and the right to privacy, and against violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. Most of the organization's work so far has involved gathering information about human rights violations and publishing it on-line. Derechos also maintains several different discussion and action alert E-mail lists. Information on how to subscribe is on the Web site.

Although the group's efforts are focused on human rights, its work will be effected by decisions that are yet to be made on technology policy issues. Recognizing the relationship between human rights and free speech, Derechos recently filed an amicus brief in the challenge to the constitutionality of the Communications Decency Act provisions of the U.S. Telecommunications Act of 1996. The brief expresses concerns about the CDA's potentially chilling effects on the dissemination of accounts of human rights violations -- some of which may very well be considered indecent in some communities. The brief is on the organization's Web site.

The group's interests also overlap with the efforts of public interest advocates working to ensure that strong encryption technology can be legally exported outside U.S. borders. Derechos is working to convince the local human rights organizations that it works with to start using PGP, one of the more popular forms of encryption. Derechos co-founder Margarita Lacabe says her organization would like to be able to advocate for the use of PGP without violating the law.

How to Help NetAction

Membership in NetAction supports continued publication of NetAction Notes, as well as a wide range of organizing and training activities. NetAction projects include helping grassroots organizations harness the power of the Internet as a tool for outreach and advocacy; helping activists who are already using the Internet do a more effective job of building a base of grassroots support for technology-based social and political issues; and promoting more widespread access to information technology by organizing hands-on demonstrations of the Internet.

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Copyright 1997 by The Tides Center/NetAction. All rights reserved. Material may be reposted or reproduced for non-commercial use provided NetAction is cited as the source.

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