A decade ago, South Korean workers used the Internet to produce live reports (including video) about their general strikes. At the time, they were way ahead of the rest of the world in maximizing the use of the new communications technology. They still are.
A union organizing workers at a company called KORENO (a subsidiary of Samsung and a Japanese corporation) set up an online group in October last year and signed up 110 members. The group was hosted by one of the largest Korean internet service providers, Daum Communications.
So far the story is not unlike what many of us have experienced. Many unions use online tools such as Yahoo Groups to help on organizing campaigns.
The company management at KORENO did not like the online group, so they brought legal action against the union. They claimed that the union had “injured the company’s honor” by publishing “false content” online.
At the same time, they wrote to the internet service provider demanding that they shut down the union’s web presence.
Daum Communications promptly did this, not only denying the union a platform but also denying them access to details about individual workers who had used the site to express their interest in joining the union.
The union and its supporters are furious, claiming that this is all a form of censorship. They point out that there has been no court ruling regarding the company’s claim that the site is libelous.
Daum says that its own policy forbids it from hosting any content which is subject to a legal dispute.
There are certain lessons to be learned here by unions anywhere which are trying to use the net to organize workers.
First of all, backup. The Korean union needed to keep an offline backup of all the contacts it had collected through the website. It is staggering to think that they do not have access to contact details of those who wished to join a union because these were kept by the internet service provider.
Second, more backup. Every website should be backed up on the union’s local computers, ready to be moved to another internet service provider when and if needed. This is not only important in cases like KORENO where censorship is at work, but more typically when a union needs to change internet providers to save money or get better service. The LabourStart website, for example, is now on its fourth hosting company — meaning that on three separate occasions in less than ten years we have had to move all our content.
Third, we should not over-rely on free online tools. Things like Daum’s network of “cafes” or Yahoo Groups may seem quite tempting, but can obviously be easily taken away from us. And again, not only in cases of censorship, but simply because companies that give online services away for free can change their policy at any time and start charging, or restricting what we do, or even shut down completely. We need to use our own sites hosted on our own servers where possible.
And finally, we should not underestimate the opposition. It’s all well and good to delight in the new-found freedom we have online, with our ability to launch instant campaigns and build global networks at virtually no cost. But companies are not necessarily stupid. They may well be aware of what we are doing and look for ways — including legal action and threats made to internet service providers — to slow down and even stop our use of these powerful new technologies.
A decade ago, Korean unions were showing unions around the world our future — we were seeing how web pages could be created in real time and global solidarity built online. Today we’re seeing what happens next — a corporate counter-attack that may become increasingly sophisticated and effective.