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Tuesday, 7 March, 2000, 18:59 GMT
You've got mail, minister

By BBC News Online's Jonathan Duffy

Of all the people to have benefited from the spread of the internet, firebrand activists must be some of its biggest fans.

Thanks to the net's speed, global spread and low cost, e-mail and the web are a gift to those intent on motivating the masses behind whatever is their chosen "just cause".

Anti-capitalist protestors who took to the streets in several cities around the world last year used the internet to co-ordinate their campaign of action.

According to Scotland Yard, protestors are using 15 websites to organise another demonstration in central London in May. The National Criminal Intelligence Service says there has been a rise in politically motivated computer incidents since 1998.

Prescott
Prescott: Bracing himself of an e-mail onslaught
But while hardened activists steal the headlines, the power of the net, and specifically e-mail, is being harnessed by more mainstream campaign causes.

On Tuesday, union campaigners launched an "e-mail protest" site to galvanise hostility towards privatising the UK's air traffic control services.

Internet users can log on to the campaign website - safeskies.co.uk - and send an e-mail to the deputy prime minister, John Prescott.

It's as quick and easy as dashing off an e-mail to a friend - which is why activists hope it will generate a better response than any postal protest.

Although still very much in its infancy, some pressure groups say e-mail activism can be highly effective.


"E-mail is so easy to administrate. It's the only way to make an impact now,"

Peter Stewart
Earlier this month, Home Secretary Jack Straw told the House of Commons he had received 70,000 e-mail messages and letters urging him to extradite General Pinochet.

Amnesty UK regularly calls on several hundred core members to fire off e-mails for its emergency appeals.

"It's vital that you let government officials know as soon as possible after an arrest that we know this person is being held in captivity and that we are monitoring the situation.

"It can literally save lives," says Amnesty's urgent action co-ordinator Ray Mitchell.

But he admits there is an ongoing debate about the relative merits of e-mails against letters and faxes. There is a feeling among some, he admits, that an e-mail doesn't carry the same clout as a well drafted letter, which has been typed, signed and posted.

The personal touch

"Airmail may look more impressive," he concedes, but "the more that e-mail becomes the norm for correspondence the more it will be taken seriously."

One "trick" to make the message more striking is to turn the subject field into a campaign message itself. Another is to personalise the mail, to make up for the lack of a signature, he says.


The Safeskies site, where users can register their protest
The use of e-mail as a protest tool was crucial to the campaign to save Manchester United from the clutches of Rupert Murdoch, says Peter Stewart, editor of the website Virtual Manchester.

Last year, his site hosted an online petition that drew 12,000 missives from fans around the world who opposed a bid by Mr Murdoch's BSkyB TV station to buy the club.

The mails were printed off and each month presented to the government. The bid was eventually refused by the Department of Trade and Industry.

"Without a shadow of a doubt it made [ministers] think twice. The politicians did not realise how big it was. It was not just a parochial issue for Manchester but also London and around the world," says Mr Stewart.

Easy on campaigners

Organising online meant there was no need for campaigners to trudge the streets in the rain, clipboard in hand.

"It's so easy to administrate. It's the only way to make an impact now," says Mr Stewart, who envisages a similar sort of campaign were Manchester United to put David Beckham up for sale.

Yet not all e-mail activism is as effective as this example. Chain petitions - the sort which drop into your inbox and, invariably involve political wrangling at a state level in the US - have proved highly unreliable.

While many are penned with good intentions, others are hoaxes, and it's difficult to tell the difference. Once they have gone out into the ether, it's also hard to have any control over distribution.

Familiarity breeds contempt

One example is a chain petition protesting at the treatment of women by Afghanistan's Taleban regime. The e-mail, drafted by a well-meaning student at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, generated such a great response the university cancelled its author's e-mail privileges and deleted what was left in the inbox.

And history suggests that in the future, even well managed e-mail campaigns may not carry the sway they do now. In 1950s and 60s America, letters to congressmen were relatively rare, so they were taken seriously.

By the 1970s the legitimacy of the written word had been undermined by the upsurge in professionally orchestrated letter-writing groups. Given how much easier it is to generate multiple e-mails, a similar reaction is perhaps inevitable.

Erol Ziya, spokesman for the Campaign for Unmetered Telecommunications, which has run e-mail campaigns, agrees.

"In a way it's too easy, too simplistic. What people want to see is a level of commitment. In this modern, busy world it's a rare thing."

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