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By Rory O’Brien and Andrew Clement

This paper provides an historical overview of one of the largest organized uses of digital communications tools within civil society, that of facilitating information sharing and coordination among the thousands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that participated in the five United Nations’ summit conferences held between 1992 and 1995. The activities of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), the primary provider of computer communication services to the NGO sector in support of the 1992 Earth Summit and subsequent UN world conferences, offers a case study of the processes involved. It is argued that three main factors contributed to the successful utilization of the technology: the technical infrastructure; the supplementary services of support, training and promotion; and APC’s internal communications experience.


In the early 1990s, the United Nations held five world summits on matters of social and environmental concern. To help translate the pan-governmental debate on social and environmental problems into effective policy implementation at the local level, the UN agreed to the active involvement of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

These activities took place at a time when computer communications technology was beginning to be deployed internationally, and many of the thousands of NGOs attending the summits used the computer networks of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) to keep themselves informed on summit-related issues and logistics. The APC was the primary provider of online services for:

  • 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), Rio de Janeiro 
  • 1993 United Nations Conference on Human Rights (UNCHR) in Vienna, Austria 
  • 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (UNCPD) in Cairo, Egypt 
  • 1995 World Summit on Social Development (WSSD) in Copenhagen, Denmark 
  • 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women (WCW) in Beijing, China


The Association for Progressive Communications (APC) is an international nonprofit umbrella organization for 24 national or regional computer networks serving the needs of the social change sector. Established in 1990 to facilitate cooperation, information-sharing, and technical interoperability among its members (O’Brien, 1992; Frederick, 1993), its mission is:

“to empower and support organisations, social movements and individuals in and through the use of information and communication technologies to build strategic communities and initiatives for the purpose of making meaningful contributions to equitable human development, social justice, participatory political processes and environmental sustainability.” (APC Secretariat, 1997)

The APC member networks, while incorporated as nonprofits, operate as fee-for-service businesses. However, to mount large projects, such as for many UN summit activities, APC members often seek funding from foundations and foreign aid agencies.

APC members and partners in 1995

apc_networks_1995: APC networks in 1995
Fig. 1 Map showing APC members (red) and partners (yellow) in 1995

APC networks are decentralized, autonomous, and cooperative. Besides member networks, there have been dozens of “partner” networks, mostly in developing nations, linked to APC hosts for e-mail and news feeds. Collectively, APC networks support tens of thousands of social change organizations, making it the largest integrated, private online system for non-profit usage in the world. Though individual circumstances may vary, most APC networks provide a wide range of services, including dial-up access, e-mail, computer conferencing, online databases, and website development and hosting.

APC’s role in the UN summits: the case of the Earth Summit

The 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, also known as the Earth Summit) was an historic event, having brought together the largest number of heads of state, as well as being the single largest gathering of NGOs and citizen activists to date. The NGO community had been rapidly growing over the years, with national citizen movements in the areas of environment, peace, social justice and human rights, giving rise to a multitude of transnational advocacy networks (Keck and Sikkink, 1998). NGOs were becoming an important component of policy creation and implementation, and the Earth Summit became the first UN-sponsored forum in which NGOs were given official status to make presentations. An overview of the role APC played in UNCED serves to illustrate the general format of assistance given by APC at each subsequent UN summit.

Two years prior to the conference, the UN began working with the APC to disseminate official summit information to NGOs (Information Habitat, 1990). Backgrounders to the issues, draft policies, country briefings, and logistical bulletins were posted by the UN to a set of computer conferences shared internationally on all APC networks. This allowed several thousand civil society groups around the world to be kept informed at very little cost to the UN.

During the 10 days of the Summit, an APC contingent of technical and support staff set up two communications centres, one providing service at the official UN site, the other at the NGO Global Forum, the ‘alternative summit’, across town. APC made all its services, including promotion, training and information facilitation, available at no charge to the participants. These facilities allowed groups to be in daily contact with their colleagues attending the conference, as well as with those back home and around the world, making it much easier to evaluate the official governmental declarations and to create and air alternative views. This resulted in modifications to resolutions on the basis of contributions from concerned activists from around the world who were unable to attend in person.

Following the Summit, active on-line discussions continued, aided by the electronic public dissemination of all official UN documents and their NGO counterparts. According to Susanne Sallin, author of a 1994 research report on APC,

“As a result of the conference, there has been continued involvement in environmental policy issue-areas from a diversity of groups. The APC networks have made communication and organizing around specific issue-areas easier for many environmental advocacy groups.” (Sallin, 1994)

The scale of these operations was such that the level of involvement by NGOs would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, without the communication facilitation provided by APC. The following quote is indicative of many received.

“ ‘The APC networks delivered a tremendous job. With their full cooperation, it was possible to reach a very large, and important environment-development community worldwide in a timely, and cost- effective fashion. Without this communication channel, the involvement of non-governmental organizations in the official UNCED process, as well as in the various parallel processes simply could not have been as effective as they were.’ Janos Pasztor, Information Systems Coordinator, UNCED Secretariat.” (APC Secretariat, 1997)


In looking for the reasons for APC’s UN Summit success, three distinct, but inter-related, factors stand out: the technical infrastructure, the supplementary services of support, training and promotion, and APC’s internal communications.

The technical infrastructure

The foundation of the APC was the technical infrastructure it provided for NGOs. Obtaining dial-up connections and online accounts for e-mail and computer conferencing through APC enabled regional groups to communicate more effectively with their peers internationally. This was due to the relatively low cost and rapidity of message transmission, and the ability to have asynchronous, multiple party interactions within online group forums, which were far cheaper to implement than either telephone conference calls or face-to-face meetings.

The United Nations chose APC primarily because it offered the most effective venue for distributing official documentation to NGOs globally. This was especially true for those APC members and partners operating in poorer countries, in which inadequate mail and telephone infrastructures made traditional information dissemination very slow, unreliable, and prohibitively expensive. In several cases APC assisted Southern NGOs in setting up local systems, thereby offering public electronic communications in some countries for the very first time. These efforts helped widen online interaction in global civil society.

The primary online tool for group communications was computer conferencing. Conferences could be shared by all APC networks, with updates distributed several times a day. In addition to summit-specific conferences, there were also hundreds of existing APC conferences related to environment and development issues that provided unique repositories of high-quality information.

Private electronic mail was also used extensively. Mail lists, fully integrated with many of the conferences, were set up for extending communication to those who were not APC users.

At the Summit itself, computers pre-configured with APC system software became the main servers for dozens of computers and terminals linked in an on-site LAN, eventually serving over a thousand NGOs.

The supplementary services: network promotion, training, and user support

An important aspect of facilitating access to the technology is making people aware of the potentials of computer communications and how they might use the APC services. Promotion generally relied on networks of contacts and word-of-mouth. Outreach efforts prior to 1992 had already succeeded in getting several thousand activist groups online, providing a critical mass of people willing to participate in summit concerns.

The general strategy followed by APC was to work closely with organizations that were themselves networking operations—information distributors and “umbrella” groups—that encouraged use of APC systems among their own members. Many APC outreach staff had activist backgrounds and, as ‘insiders’, may have been more persuasive in their outreach efforts to social change organizations.

APC member services included training sessions in-house, in the user’s workplace, and at many conferences and workshops of interest to activists. Wherever possible, the training focused on real-life situations, using summit-related examples, and was predicated on a learning-while-doing approach.

Since their inception, the major APC networks had provided well-written user manuals as well as more interactive user support services, via online conferences and e-mail, and by telephone. With sufficient technical support, users did not have to wrestle with the technology, and could concentrate on what they wanted to do with it.

Internal APC operations

As early adopters of digital communications technologies, APC staff had been using their own systems in their operations since the beginning. Staff of local APC networks worked with each other on a face-to-face basis, but still used e-mail and computer conferencing in their daily work, giving them first-hand knowledge of how to use, and improve, their systems. But it was the need for daily collaboration by staff of all APC nodes, most of whom had never met nor spoken to their counterparts, that resulted in techniques that would prove useful to other international organizations.

The private computer conferences, in particular, were early forms of the now indispensable “intranets.” These internal APC forums, were set up to synchronize and trouble-shoot data links among network nodes, to share user feedback and create standard responses to queries, and to conduct full meetings of the APC governing council. They also functioned as an organizational memory. The unfolding of all aspects of a summit project was captured in the messages that accrued in the conferences, enabling new staff to quickly orient themselves. As “filing cabinets” of proposals and reports, they helped provide material for subsequent submissions to funders or media.

Finally, the experience derived from years of helping civil society groups communicate greatly enhanced APC staff’s ability to prepare for and implement the Earth Summit project.


That computer networks make it easier to share information among multiple groups around the world is fairly evident now. But in the early 1990s, it was not so well recognized. To enable civil society organizations to make effective use of networking technologies, the APC had to provide a global, affordable, and reliable infrastructure, but it also had to promote the technology to ensure a large enough online community for sustained NGO interactions. Staff were able to offer good training and support, as well as describe exemplary applications, because they themselves had to use their own networks under circumstances very similar to that of many users. These factors, in combination with the networking impetus provided by the Earth Summit, contributed to global civil society’s rapid adoption of the new communications technologies.

Perhaps the main conclusion that can be drawn from this case study, however, is that new tools are best adopted when they are made available, demonstrated, and supported by those who need to use those tools themselves. Certainly, the NGO community’s use of online communications had a good beginning because of APC’s leadership role in introducing the technology to civil society in support of the Earth Summit.

Rory O’Brien
Andrew Clement
Faculty of Information Studies, University of Toronto
140 St. George Street, Toronto, Canada M5S 3G6

Authors’ Note

Many of the assertions regarding the details of the APC activities and processes, including their rationale and significance, are informed by this first-hand involvement. He has recently begun doctoral research into the role of the APC in the UN summits.


APC Secretariat. “About APC.” 1997. [] (24/07/1999)
. APC at the Earth Summit: Statements from the Users. [ ] (6/08/1999)
Frederick, Howard (1993). Computer Networks and the Emergence of Global Civil Society: The Case of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC). in Harasim, Linda and Jan Walls (Eds.) Global Networks: Computers and International Communication. Cambridge: MIT Press, 283-95
Information Habitat (1990, June). United Nations Conference on Environment & Development: Information, Public Participation & Communication System A Preliminary Proposal & Discussion of the Proposal. [ ] (6/08/1999)
Keck, Margaret, and Sikkink, Kathryn (1998). Activists Beyond Borders. Ithaca: Cornell University Press
O’Brien, Rory (1992). The APC Computer Networks: Global Networking for Change. Canadian Journal of Information Science 17 (2), 16-24
Preston, Shelley (1998, July 29). Electronic Global Networking and the NGO Movement: The 1992 Rio Summit and Beyond. Swords & Ploughshares: A Chronicle Of International Affairs 3.2 (Spring1994) []
Sallin, Susanne (1994, Feb. 14). The Association for Progressive Communications: A Cooperative Effort to Meet the Information Needs of Non-Governmental Organizations. [ ] (5/7/1999)

About the authors

The first author of this paper, Rory O’Brien, was a founding member of Web Networks, itself a founding member network of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC). He and other Web Networks’ staff were primarily involved in the Earth Summit in 1992, the World Summit on Social Development in 1995, and the World Conference on Women, also in 1995. They provided assistance to NGOs in Canada, and several went to the events themselves as part of an APC support team.


The CPSR Newsletter Volume 18, Number 3