Rory O'Brien

This paper was presented at the Canadian Association of Information Science 1991 conference "Networked Nations - The Emerging Meganets", University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario. It will be published in the July 1992 edition of the Canadian Journal of Information Science.


The APC computer networks: global networking for change

One of the ways networking is being facilitated these days is through computer communications. In the past fifteen years, global networks of linked computers have sprung up, bringing into play a powerful new medium for social discourse and the diffusion of innovations. Many social change activists are starting to make use of APC computer networks to help in the grassroots empowerment of social and environmental movements, both at the local level and at the global level.

Les réseaux d'ordinateurs de APC : la gestion de réseaux mondiaux favorisant le changement

La gestion des réseaux est rendue plus facile ces jours-ci, grâce à la télématique. Dans les dernière quinze années, des réseaux mondiaux d'ordinateurs reliés ont surgis, mettant en jeu un nouveau moyen de s'entretenir et de diffuser des innovations. Plusiers activistes, qui sont intéressés aux changements sociaux, commencent à utiliser les réseaux d'ordinateurs de APC (Association for Progressive Communications) afin d'avoir pleins pouvoirs dans les mouvements de la population qui ont trait à l'environnement et à la société, aux niveaux régional et mondial.


Networking is an organizing technique that is being increasingly employed by environmentalists and other activists. Local and global movements for social change are being aided by the cooperatively linked computer networks of the APC, the Association for Progressive Communications.

Using the electronic mail and computer conferencing capabilities provided by each APC host system, thousands of organizations and individuals are keeping each other informed about specific interest areas. The synergistic quality of this new form of communication greatly enhances the collaborative workings of groups, especially since it offers an affordable solution to many of the time and space barriers encountered in traditional face-to-face networking.


Human beings are social creatures that form networks to meet individual and collective needs. People seek out others who share their values and concerns. Through face-to-face meetings, often interspersed with telephone calls, letters, or electronic communications, members of a forming network develop a knowledge of their contacts. This allows them to call upon specific people when a need for resources arises. Such resources may be advice, cooperation in an initiative, money, emotional support, or anything else that may meet their needs. Groups can network with other groups in the same manner.

Many of the individuals and groups involved in social movements, especially in the past few decades, have turned to networking as a means of eliciting action when official routes to change have been blocked or too slow. The civil rights and women's movement, anti_Vietnam War protesters, anti-nuclear activists, and environmental groups have used this technique.

Networking is important to organizing social change. The participants must become acquainted with each other in order to understand how they might all work together to set and reach common goals. Networks can be the means by which those involved develop an action-oriented identity and are provided with the support and information needed to pursue their role in the collectively designed activities.

Networking has a number of advantages due to its value-based, loosely coupled, weblike, and non-hierarchical structure. It can encourage the full utilization of innovation, minimize the consequences of failure, promote the sharing of information across socioeconomic barriers while preserving ethnic and vernacular values, maintain flexibility and adaptability in the face of new situations and developments, and emphasize egalitarian rather than authoritarian roles and relationships.

Computer networking

Computer networking offers an interesting new approach to networking insofar as it allows the interactions of the participants to continue independent of time and space. Though face-to-face meetings still have an important part to play in establishing common goals and strategies for those attempting to define and solve problems, computer networks can facilitate the daily organizational communications needed to sustain optimal progress. Feedback on activities and options for future endeavours can be discussed by any and all involved. As part of a larger effort to create networks that are change-oriented, computers have an important role to play.

In the 1970s, the capability for one computer to exchange data with another computer using telephone lines was established. The United States Department of Defense created ARPANET, a network of mainframe computers located at various universities that allowed the sharing of information and data processing between members of the Advanced Research Projects Agency.

In the following decade, a number of networks came into being: the ARPANET hived off CSNET, MILNET, and NSFnet, and this collectivity became known as the ARPA INTERNET; universities not wishing to be involved in defense research formed BITNET (initially using the technology of VNET, which IBM set up to link its world-wide operations); UUCP protocols allowed computers with UNIX operating systems to hook up to one another, thus creating USENET, the first distributed computer conferencing network; and when personal computers hit the market in the early 1980s, it wasn't long before FidoNet was allowing local Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) to communicate with one another across several continents.

These networks gave the people who had access to them the capability of transferring software programs and sending and receiving electronic mail. Later this evolved into mass interactive exchanges, involving hundreds or thousands of participants, through the creation of computer conferences and e-mail lists on single topics. Such new powers meant that the rate of diffusion of innovations, previously hampered by barriers of distance, time, and expensive communication media, could proceed at a much faster pace.


Environmentalists and other social change activists have also been developing computer networks of their own to enhance their own ability to cooperate with others who share their commitments. In 1985, the Institute for Global Communications began operating PeaceNet as a means of aiding the peace movement in the United States. Soon thereafter EcoNet was added for U.S. environmentalists. In 1986, GreenNet started up in England, followed quickly by Web in Canada in 1987. That these networks all operated the same hardware and software allowed for full integration of electronic mail and computer conferencing between them. More grassroots national and regional networks were added to these linked systems in 1989 and 1990: Nicarao in Nicaragua, AlterNex in Brazil, NordNet in Sweden, and Pegasus in Australia.

Representatives of these networks met in 1990 to form the APC, the Association for Progressive Communications, an international non-profit organization dedicated to facilitating progressive social change through cooperative local and global computer networking.

Collectively, the APC system connects over 12,000 activists in over ninety countries. This number is increasing exponentially, with fledgling local networks continually being formed and linking up. In 1991, ComLink in Germany, GlasNet in Russia, and Chasque in Uruguay became APC members. Several other networks were granted associate status as well.

The APC aims to provide a globally interconnected electronic communications network dedicated to a free and balanced flow of information. The APC's member organizations serve people working toward goals including peace, the prevention of warfare, elimination of militarism, protection of the environment, furtherance of human rights and the rights of peoples, achievement of social and economic justice, elimination of poverty, promotion of sustainable and equitable development, advancement of participatory democracy, and nonviolent conflict resolution.

Network capabilities

Each APC Network operates much like a cross between a post office and a convention centre. A single host computer in each country runs sophisticated software that ensures that electronic messages are either placed into an individual's private mailbox or put into computer conferences where they can be read by everyone.

Users of the network use their modem to connect their own computer up to the APC host via regular telephone lines. Once connected, they can transfer messages to other users or receive them at their leisure. The communication is asynchronous and aspatial, eliminating the need for participants to be communicating in the same place or at the same time.

Electronic mail

E-mail is the most highly used feature of APC. Networking is still very much a sequence of encounters between individuals, and the sending of letters as a way of keeping in touch is still the norm. Yet this habit is changing too. Having the capability of carbon copying the message to several others just by typing in their online addresses has meant that small group interactions have been greatly strengthened. Coupled with having the ability to send documents by e-mail to colleagues halfway around the world in a matter of minutes, activists are now forming alliances and task forces that would have been logistically impractical only a few years ago.

Each APC system has the capability of exchanging e-mail with other APC networks. Because of connections to the global meta-network of hundreds of interlinked messaging systems (including the aforementioned INTERNET, BITNET, UUCP/USENET, and FidoNet, and to the commercial networks such as Dialcom and CompuServe, as well as the fax and telex networks), the potential correspondents number over five million people.

Computer conferences

It is in its conferencing capabilities that the APC's great potential is realized. A conference is a shared information space that gives users an opportunity to post a message as a new topic to which other users can then add their responses.

APC software structures conference messages into three levels: conference, topic, and responses. Conferences contain any number of topic messages, which can contain any number of responses. This flexibility makes it very easy to follow the threads of discussions within an area of interest. (See Figure 1.)


| User's |

Available |personal|

Conferences | list | Topic Response

A A ----------- 1 -------- 1

----- 2

B ----- 3

----- 4


2 -------- 1


3 -------- 1

E ----- 2

----- 3


C ----------- 1 -------- 1

G ----- 2

E (etc.)

Fig. 1 - APC conference structure

APC has over 900 conferences available to its users. Their subject matter generally deals with social concerns: the environment, peace, social justice, health, education, and local and international development. The following list illustrates the broad range of subjects covered:

Africa    Health

Air & Climate    Homeopathy

Alerts    Human Rights

Announcements    International

Beyond War    Labor

Calendars    Media

Central & South America    Military & Security

Community    New Age/Spirituality

Development    News Articles/Press Releases

Disarmament    Newsletters - Environment

East-West    Newsletters - Other

Economics    Newsletters - Peace

Education & Research    Nuclear Weapons & Testing

Energy    Pacific Rim

Environment - Education    Peace - Legislation

Environment - General    Peace/Social Justice

Environment - Legislation    Philosophy & Religion

Europe    Politics - General

Food & Agriculture    Populations

Foreign Policy - U.S.    Seas & Waters

Forests    Spanish-language

Friends of the Earth    Technology

General Interest    Toxics & Waste

GeoNet    United Nations

Global Action Network    Wilderness & Wildlife

Government Sources - U.S.    Women

Greens Movement    Youth

Fig. 2 - APC conference categories

Conferences may be public or private, depending on their nature. Public conferences are accessible by any member, whereas private ones restrict access to a specific group of members. They may be set up for a limited time to address a problem with an immediate deadline, or maintained for an indefinite period for exploring general concerns for months or even years.

Ways conferences are being used

Many journalistic organizations are making their news articles available to users on a regular basis. This practice makes the conference act like a newswire service. Other organizations maintain conferences in which they place their regular publications, such as newsletters or reports.

One of the main ways conferences are used is for the posting of bulletins _ general sharing of items of interest to the participants. This process provides a growing repository of useful information in particular subject areas.

Conferences have been especially useful as discussion forums. Many organizations use them in this way to prepare multi-authored documents, create plans and policies, prepare budgets, and discuss events.

Other uses include: upcoming events listings, job postings, and provision of advice for using microcomputers.


All APC networks are fully integrated for e-mail and online conferences. Information placed in one network is obtainable on all networks; thus ongoing discussion and information sharing can take place among people all over the planet. Some case studies can help illustrate how APC is facilitating social change.

East - West

The International Foundation for the Survival and Development of Humanity (IFSDH) is an organization set up to promote peace between the superpowers. Its board of directors includes the head of the Soviet Academy of Sciences as well as a previous U.S. Secretary of Defense. It has been instrumental in establishing electronic links between Russia and the countries of the West through the founding of GlasNet, an APC system in Moscow. GlasNet, like other APC networks, exists to provide local connectivity among Soviet change groups. Over 100 organizations are now online in Russia.

Activists in other eastern European countries continue to dial in to GreenNet in London. Their postings on the state of their respective countries' environmental situations as well as updates on the political scenes are being placed in conferences for the benefit of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the west with an interest in providing assistance.

North - South

The APC already includes networks in Brazil, Uruguay, and Nicaragua and links directly to others in Bolivia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Philippines, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Ghana, South Africa, Zambia, Ethiopia, and Kenya. The APC's hope is to help local systems establish themselves throughout the countries of the south. This effort will help decrease the dependency on foreign-based hosts by local networkers, yet still allow connections to be made when desired. Currently, individuals in most of these countries must now dial long-distance to one of the existing APC hosts.

A good example of how the APC is making international cooperation easier is shown by the United Nations. The UN is hosting a major conference on environment and development in Rio de Janeiro in August 1992 to which 20,000 people will be invited. This "Earth Summit" is to be the forum for establishing major policy changes by governments and creating a framework for strategic implementation of the recommendations outlined in the Brundtland Report. The APC is providing the electronic communications not only for the organizers of the conference but also for the NGOs and government agencies throughout the world who are giving advice on the process and agenda.

InterPress Service, the fifth largest newswire service in the world and the first in coverage of news from Southern countries, has recently agreed to provide its news articles electronically via APC. This resource, together with the current material in APC news conferences provided by independent journalists in Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, will further improve the flow of information from South to North.

Local networking

In Canada, the APC network is called Web. Web is provided as a service of Nirv Centre, a nonprofit organization that assists other nonprofits in acquiring and using the latest in computing technologies. For the past three years, Web has been very useful in maintaining contact among Canadian environmentalists, among others.

A good example of how Web has improved local networking is in organizing around government environmental hearings. The federal Department of Environment held public discussion forums in major cities across the country in order to get feedback for its proposed Greenplan, a national plan for environmentally sustainable economic growth. Via Web, environmental groups attending these forums were able to keep each other informed on the proceedings as they progressed, and were thus able to provide the government with a critique of the process as well as the content of the plan.

Environmentalists in the energy sector were similarly able to provide coherent and detailed presentations at government hearings on the energy future of Canada because of their ability to share information and co-author reports on Web. Their counterparts in the energy industry admitted that, despite their greater resources, their presentations were less well prepared because of inferior communications.


The amount of resources needed to create online networks for purposeful interaction is bound to decrease. There are many present trends that will make it highly likely that more and more people will be using computer networks for communicating. Computer and telecommunication technology is becoming more powerful and less costly, global standards for interconnections are being implemented, the common digitalization of present media is hastening their merging into a single medium, machine/human interfaces are becoming friendlier and the technology is easier to use, and the schools are turning out more computer-literate students every day.

The trends point toward such growth that eventually a bandwagon effect will be the outcome. As in the case of fax, at some point people will realize that to be without access to a computer network will put them at a disadvantage. By then, perhaps, effective methods of mobilizing the general public to implement solutions to social and environmental problems will have been pioneered by those people now online with APC.


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