Euro-IR Project Main Index
The APC European Internet Rights Project
Internet Censorship Case Study:
supply is an important public issue in South Africa. Apartheid left
behind a water supply system that, while giving most white South
Africans access, leaves many black townships with woefully insufficient
debate has been taking place on how to create adequate water supplies
for these areas. The issue of privatisation has been at the centre
of this debate. Arguments have been advanced that the capital for
expanding the municipal water supply systems can only come through
selling them off to multinational corporations. This has been strongly
opposed by those who argue that equal development and access can
only be ensured by keeping water in public hands.
South African Municipal Workers' Union (SAMWU), many of whose members
work in water supply, has been in the frontline of opposing water
privatisation. It has used the Internet very effectively to publicise
1997, the conflict between the opposing views focused on the town
of Nelspruit, where the Town Council decided to take bids for a
30-year contract to run water supplies. Whoever won the contract
for this first sell off would be in a very strong position to ultimately
take over other major parts of South Africa's water supply. Competition
was fierce. The frontrunner in the bidding was a British transnational
corporation, Biwater Plc.
On 17th April 1998,Peter Carter-Ruck and Partners, a company renowned
for handling libel actions, sent a letter to the British ISP, GreenNet,
over a press release by SAMWU that was on the LabourNet website
on the GreenNet server. Carter-Ruck was acting on behalf of Biwater.
They indicated that unless the press release was removed immediately
and this reported to them within seven days, legal action would
be taken against GreenNet. They claimed the press release contained
allegations that had already been the subject of court action against
the Independent in 1994 and Private Eye in 1996. In both cases,
the defendants had paid substantial damages and legal costs to Biwater
and apologised for the allegations.
fact, the press release simply referred to allegations that had
been carried in the South African newspaper, Mail & Guardian
in an article on April 11, 1997 entitled "Thatcher's
pals bid for SA water". Legal action had not been taken
against this article although Biwater had made threats against it
in May1997. The central allegation in the article was that:
was among a select group of civil contractors and defence manufacturers
which benefited from a secret network that controlled the supply
of British aid and arms to, and trade with, overseas countries
initiated at the start of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher's
soon emerged that, simultaneous with the letter sent to GreenNet,
a letter had also been sent to the South African ISP, SangoNet.
This made a similar threat of court action unless the M & G
article was removed immediately from its online archive, which was
on the SangoNet server.
attempt by Biwater to remove the M & G article from an online
archive and eliminate reference to it from the Internet was reminiscent
of George Orwell's 1984. If they had succeeded it would have imposed
a greater restriction on the Internet than exists at any public
library in a democratic country.
24th April, Chris Bailey, webmaster of LabourNet, appealed
for support from the Internet community to defend the Mail &
is the attempt to remove all traces of the Mail and Guardian article
from the Internet, including even archives, through intimidating
people with threatened law suits that is totally unacceptable.
This must not be allowed to happen and must be fought by the Internet
community as a whole.
has the power of money, we have the power of the Internet. We
must use this to the full. The pages forced from the Internet
by legal threats and intimidation must be given a much wider audience
than they would otherwise have had, by disseminating them as widely
as possible. This is our ultimate defence of Internet democracy."
Measures Taken To Counter The Threat
an early stage it was decided that the main issue was to defend
the M & G article. The SAMWU press release simply referred to
this article and did not add anything new. It was removed from LabourNet
with an announcement of what had happened and a link to the M &
G article. SangoNet was prepared to defend this article. But now
a problem arose, the Mail and Guardian itself decided to comply
with the lawyers instructions. SangoNet could hardly insist
that a customer keep material on its website if it did not want
this point, LabourNet set out to trace the journalist who had written
the article, Eddie Koch, to find out his position. Koch, who no
longer worked for the Mail & Guardian, did want to defend his
piece. He was adamant that it was accurate and truthful. It was
in this context that LabourNet decided to defend the article and
appealed for help to do so.
GreenNet and SangoNet are members of the Association for Progressive
Communications (APC). They discussed their situation within APC.
As a result of this, two other APC members, Inform in Denmark and
Antenna in the Netherlands, approached LabourNet offering to help.
They set up LabourNet Biwater mirror websites on their servers where
the material removed from GreenNet and SangoNet could be placed.
At the same time they issued a joint
has enabled communications between people during war, under dictatorships,
and in areas of poverty where the financial means makes it hard
to communicate at all. And to create a space for NGOs in the industrial
and democratic countries, where normal freedom of speech is used
to express various facts and opinions without problems.
days, it became clear from the server logs of Inform and Antenna
that they now also faced a legal threat. Carter-Ruck and lawyers
based in their respective countries were making frequent visits
to the Biwater mirror sites. Inform and Antenna informed other APC
members that they were not prepared to continue mirroring if they
were the only ones. They appealed for other APC members to also
make Biwater mirror sites. Their appeal was answered, eventually
13 APC members
around the world mirrored the Biwater website.
believe all people should have the right to use the Internet in
order to seek out the truth. It's by sharing of information the
truth can be reached."
LabourNets appeal for help was also being answered elsewhere.
Other websites outside APC began to produce mirror sites. The online
Watch publicised the case.
international trade union organisations began to lend support too.
The Public Services International (PSI), an international trade
union federation with 513 affiliated trade unions in 137 countries
around the world, issued a press
statement condemning Biwaters attempt to remove the M
& G article from the Internet.
reproducing the M & G article, those opposing Biwaters
censorship attempt made more extensive inquiries into some of the
more dubious aspects of the companys activities and publicised
these on the Internet. A journalist working for LabourNet, Greg
Dropkin, produced the first
of these reports. The PSI commissioned an in
depth report into Biwater from the Public Services Privatisation
Research Unit (PSPRU). In a co-ordinated action between PSI, SAMWU
and LabourNet this report was released simultaneously on all the
mirror websites, on a number of trade union websites, including
that of the 125 million member International Confederation of Free
Trade Unions, and in printed form in a number of countries around
attempt to censor Internet debate on an issue of public interest
was successfully opposed and seriously backfired on them. The article
they tried to remove was widely reproduced and publicised in many
countries around the world with no legal action taken anywhere.
In addition, new detailed reports criticising their activities were
produced and widely publicised. The resulting bad publicity over
the role of the company and its attempts at censorship found its
way back to the South African press, thus having the opposite effect
to what they had intended.
Biwater case highlighted a need for a core international network
of websites to be able to come quickly to the defence of threatened
content. It showed there is considerable strength in numbers, particularly
when support is spread widely around the world. Serious threats
of legal action existed while only one or two sites were defending
the threatened material against censorship and this was the most
critical stage. As soon as support got beyond a certain point it
grew rapidly; the threat of legal action against any one organisation
receded and became largely irrelevant. The Hydra like quality of
the opposition Biwater faced, with its attempt to censor information
on one website meaning it was soon reproduced internationally on
a dozen more, could be used as an example to deter other censorship
attempts, as was shown later by the Nu-Skin case.
a result of the experience of the Biwater case APC began to consider
the need for a Rapid Response Security Network that could quickly
mirror websites threatened with censorship in a number of different
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