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By Brian Martin Murphy
NGOs had been thinking about and networking computers in different countries around the world since the early eighties. At that time, the Internet was used exclusively for academic and military purposes. A small number of business oriented commercial email services did exist but it was difficult or impossible to send email from one network to another. So the few NGOs that were using PCs did so for documentation purposes, rather than communication or action. At the end of the 1980s, geographically disconnected but similar NGO networking experiments serendipitously came together to form the APC.
APC was officially founded in 1990, but the link-up of computers and software to connect remote civil society organisations working for common causes on an international basis started much earlier.
The international demonstration of what NGOs could do with computer networking was established in a series of experiments funded by the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC) under the umbrella of Interdoc. Interdoc grew out of the 1984 Valletri1 agreement in which NGOs from four continents agreed to use international telephone lines to link their computers. The Valletri signatories were mostly large NGOs who could afford to use computers for their work at a time when PCs were still huge, expensive and relatively complex to use.
At the outset, many Interdoc members used the e-mail service of a European-based commercial email network called GeoNet. A group of peace and environmentalist activists in London had formed an arrangement with GeoNet to operate a non-profit sub-net on GeoNet called GreenNet and pushed to get other users to share the same system in order to communicate fluidly. By 1987, GreenNet acquired its own equipment and moved its operations away from GeoNet. GreenNet was founded by progressive environmentalist, Mitra2, with Jeremy Mortimer as technical director. Although not part of the original Interdoc initiative, Mitra was familiar with it.
By pure coincidence, and without knowledge of what was going on in the UK and unaware of the Interdoc initiative, in 1985 PeaceNet3 was set up as a network of US peace activists. A year later PeaceNet and environmentalist network, EcoNet, were merged to form the Institute for Global Communications (IGC).
Mitra and Mark Graham (one of PeaceNet’s founders) had been discussing working together. During 1988, Scott Weikart, heading PeaceNet’s technical side, discovered by accident that GreenNet was running the exact same kind of computer that PeaceNet and EcoNet were run on — a Plexus minicomputer. “Scott (PeaceNet’s technical director) packed a 300 megabyte disk4 with all the software,” said former PeaceNet director, Geoff Sears, “and hauled that off to London to start a transatlantic digital communications network running.” This is how one of the first NGO-owned communications systems between continents was created.
The power of linking progressive networks for email and information sharing internationally was obvious to the visionaries at GreenNet and IGC. “Both Mark Graham and Scott Weikart at PeaceNet and GreenNet’s Mitra had the Internet vision of global communications unfettered by commercial barriers,” remembers Dr. Viv Kendon, a GreenNet pioneer. “All were involved with Internet standards and policy committees even then, while it was (sic) still exclusively academic. This vision they bequeathed to APC, and is probably the single most important thing that APC had, that the Interdoc initiative did not emphasise or try to implement in the same way”.
The services on IGC networks and GreenNet were a little cheaper than commercial providers, which opened the doors to smaller NGOs and individuals. Viv Kendon joined GreenNet at the end of 1989 to build the credibility and user base of GreenNet in the UK and Europe. “Widening the user base to grassroots activists, in contrast to the larger NGO documentation centres dominating Interdoc/GeoNet: this was the priority of the newly formed international network of GreenNet and IGC,” she explains. “We wanted to show what you could do with email — crisis response to rainforest logging is the most-quoted early success. And we ran mailing lists to enable those with other email services to receive information from the online conferences (electronic notice boards). We didn’t try to insist everybody joined us if they already had email.”
Everyone involved in the IGC-GreenNet connection wanted to extend the system. In the USA, IGC took their example to foundation donors, and the MacArthur Foundation of Chicago became interested, providing $25,000. Part of the money was used to fund the setting-up of a network of grass-root non-profit email providers over the next two years which would go throughout the Americas, into the former Soviet Union, to Asia and into Amsterdam in time for an Interdoc conference in 1990.
The Interdoc conference in 1990 was organised by Antenna, later an APC member for part of the 1990s. Antenna’s founder, Michael Polman, was keen to facilitate networking but, in the same vein as Mitra and Graham, did not want to run or control the networks.
That the time was right for NGO email networks to link up formally was clear from the fact that there were already seven founders by the time APC officially came into being, as well as other small service providers that were working with Interdoc. It was also clear that non-profits creating networks for non-profits was a better option at that time than relying on commercial network providers with their competitive ethos, especially outside of developed countries.
The seven organisations – IGC (USA), GreenNet (UK), NordNet (Sweden), Web Networks (Canada), IBASE (Brazil), Nicarao/CRIES (Nicaragua), and Pegasus (Australia)- that would create APC, used the Interdoc event to plan the creation of an association of non-profits organisations called the APC5. The APC saw the value of creating networks to facilitate social justice work, and of forming an association to help them help each other to serve civil society better.
1 Signatories to the ‘Valletri Agreement’ included the International Documentation Centre (IDOC) alongside Instituto Brasileiro de Analises Sociais e Economicas (IBASE – Brazil), the International Coalition for Development Action (ICDA – Belgium), CODESRIA (Senegal), Asia Monitor Research Centre (AMRC – Hong Kong), Antenna (The Netherlands), SATIS (Netherlands, based NGO database development organisation servicing 100 grassroots technology groups), Human Rights Information and Documentation Systems (HURIDOCS – Norway), Instituto Latinamericano de Estudios Transnationales (ILET Chile), DESCO, (Peru), and the International Development Education Research Agency (IDERA – Canada).
2 Mitra, GreenNet’s founder, played a crucial if subversive role in opening up and connecting nascent computer networks. He operated gateways between all the distinct email networks he could, even when the commercial operators didn’t want him to.
He would buy one email account on each, and write a script to log in, download and upload email and deliver it to GreenNet users. In fact, following GreenNet’s later link up with IGC in the US, GreenNet transferred all the information from GeoNet bulletin boards to APC conferences.
3 PeaceNet was a project of the Foundation for the Arts of Peace, through the cooperation of four organisations: Community Data Processing, the Center for Innovative Diplomacy, the Ark Foundation and the Foundation for the Arts of Peace.
4 The 300 MB disk was about the size of a large file cabinet drawer.
5 The name APC was devised in the hotel-room of rock-star Peter Gabriel in New York, between Mark Graham, Mitra, Steven Van Zandt, Danny Schechter, Hart Perry and Barry Roberts, according to common lore.
About the author
Brian Martin Murphy is an academic from Canada who has followed the development of APC closely since the mid 1990s. He was based in Zimbabwe and South Africa for several years.
APC Annual Report 2000 pp. 28-30