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Electrical Systems as a Guiding Metaphor for Stages of Group Dialogue


International Associations in an Electronic Environment

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Submitted to submitted to the UIA Statutes Committee, 9th March 1997


Article 1: Name

In an electronic environment it is interesting to reflect on how a name such as "Union of International Associations" can be usefully understood. Rather than changing it, there are ways of understanding that name which are exceedingly relevant to the continued activities of the UIA in the 21st century.

Article 2: Headquarters

Registered address: There is a recognized distinction between a legally registered office and an actual secretariat where people work. In an electronic environment the distinctions are more subtle. For a start, a distinction is made between an address in the World Wide Web and an electronic mail address, although the two may be combined.

Over the past few years "organizations" have "registered" their existence in the Web electronic environment by simply applying to a distributor of Internet electronic addresses. A distinction is made between commercial and other organizations for this purpose, although it is unclear that there is any check on this. The main function of such a distributor is to ensure that the address is electronically unique. As such it can be independent of the organization's subsequent physical location, if it has one. Moving no longer involves a "change of address", with all the dislocation normally linked to periodic rotation of secretariat offices.

The distributing body until recently performed this function at no cost, in the last year a fee has been charged which is payable annually. The status of the distributing body derived essentially from semi-formal consensus within the principal computer service providers within the Internet community -- hence its base in the USA. More recently, this status has been challenged and regional authorities have emerged which coordinate their relationship amongst each other to maintain the uniqueness of addresses.

The situation with regard to electronic addresses for e-mail is simpler since it is based on a national code, and therefore passes through a national authority. However this authority is again often appointed informally amongst the computer community. Again the power derives from the ability to refuse or disallow particular addresses, and to implement that decision directly. No address, no communication. There may be no court of appeal in face of arbitrary action by the national authority.

Regional addresses: The notion of "regional addresses" also has its counter-part in the Web environment. Web sites on distant continents may be partially or totally "mirrored" on other continents to facilitate access and reduce inter-continental traffic and costs. In the electronic case, however, the same "address" is used for both locations when accessing information. It is at the computer level that the user is connected to the "nearest" relevant address.

Physical location: In such a context, the physical location of people tends to be unrelated to the electronic address or to the actual location of computer files, although this may not be the case. People performing "secretariat" services may be dispersed across continents, or may be partially grouped in a single location. For example, there is the case of an encyclopedia being prepared from scratch by people in distant countries who rarely met. The UIA already uses editing at a distance for its Yearbook of International Organizations.

Legal sanctions: Recently publicized court cases relating to materials on NGOs, such as the scientologists, has highlighted some of the emerging legal issues. Scientologists were able to place pressure on intermediaries holding/diffusing materials critical of their activities, even though the computers in question were located in distant countries. There continues to be much debate about copyright and morally or ideologically subversive materials.

Article 3: Aims

Various terms in the definition of the UIA aims call for reinterpretation in an electronic environment.

"Non-profit making": One of the most debated issues concerning use of the Internet, is whether it is possible to ensure that electronic communication is financially self-sustaining, other than through Internet advertising. For most content providers, even those seeking to make a profit, there is little immediate prospect of direct "profit". Most such activities tend to be non-profit-making at this stage. For the UIA these issues are especially important. Much of the enthusiasm generated by the Internet has been due to its profit-free facilities and to the wealth of information available free-of-charge. Many content providers, especially non-profit associations of every kind are finding it very fruitful to make available on the Web much information on themselves and their concerns. The UIA, for example, has 2,800 freely-accessible documents on the Web.

A current issue for many is how much of this information should be made available freely, how some might be subject to charges (if only to some categories of users, such as non-members), how payments are to be made, and under what system any accounting is to be undertaken. Technical solutions are being sought, but these are in advance of any legal issues relating to tax. Clearly associations with a high proportion of their activities on the Web will seek to ensure favourable tax status by physically locating computer files where their use is not disproportionately penalized by tax regimes. As with tax havens, some developing may be wise to offer facilities to this end.

This is likely to have important implications for associations which currently have their headquarters in countries with high tax rates and which are increasingly insensitive to the needs of associations (like Belgium). Just as some associations have their "registered office" in one country and their secretariat in another, where they may be liable for taxation, it is likely that this situation will be further complicated by the location of Web-related activities such that these are not subject to punitive taxes.

The question then arises as to how "non-profit making" is to be understood. As it is, multinational enterprises are able to define some administrative offices in Belgium as "non-profit" for tax purposes, because their administrative function is not to make a profit. Similarly organizations based to an increasing degree on electronic activities, may define these in such a way that the "public relations", "advocacy" and "marketing" activities -- essential to the activities of many associations -- are all non-profit. The question of how payments, including membership fees, are handled, remains to be seen. There is every likelihood that the evolution of the legal directives will be several years behind the exploitation of the technical opportunities that are only now emerging.

"International": The Internet may be considered as having totally transformed the range of meanings to be attached to "international" and to the UIA statutory concern with "transnational association networks". Since the early 1980s people have been able to set up conferences based on electronic communication. These permit groups of people to contribute information, insights and comments into what amounts to a shared "proces verbal" that constitutes a permanent record of their transactions. Joint statements and reports may be easily prepared. Such people never need to meet or coordinate their agendas to make simultaneous use of such facilities. They may be located on different continents or in the same town. The cost of such communication has now made it readily acceptable. The issues may be seen from a variety of perspectives:

  • electronic groups: A typical phenomenon in the Internet environment is the electronic group, which may take a variety of forms. Most loosely, it can be a group of people who communicate amongst each other. Typically any communication between two people in the group will be copied to all the others. This form would tend not to exceed 50 people. This process can be somewhat formalized (as a "listserver") by arranging for all messages to be sent to one location, from which they are copied to all the members of the group. An association may operate many such thematic listservers. Such groups may have several hundred members, although the number is typically limited by the willingness of people to receive a flood of messages. Entry into the group may be subject to criteria, although "subscribing" to such a group can most often be done automatically. Another form is the so-called "usenet" or "news group". Any such group tends to be issue specific (or style specific) and attracts contributors who may freely insert messages into an evolving "proceedings", or their insertion may be constrained by a moderator. Typically this sequence of messages can be viewed by anyone with Internet access. There are in excess of 13,000 such groups. Where required, access can of course be limited to varying categories of "member" or "subscriber".

  • inter-nationality: The nationality of a contributor is virtually irrelevant, although the language used would tend not to be. The above groups tend not to perceive themselves to be "international associations" in any sense of the term. They are usually totally indifferent to the location of their contributors. It is easy to argue that their membership lacks the permanence which is usually associated with a formally constituted body. Indeed many such bodies come into existence and attract little interest. Others flourish for only a relatively short period. But it is also the case that some have relatively permanent contributing members over an extended period of time -- and this may be an attractive feature to those involved. The UIA has not as yet become involved in such newsgroups and has not endeavoured to set one up as a context for topics on which it would want to focus. It is also important to recognize that the substantive content of many of these groups, especially those which are open, is easily labelled as trivial. This is far from being the case with groups focusing on technical issues, especially when they are mediated and contributions are vetted, even if read-only access is open.

  • electronic networks: Of much greater significance for international association, are those electronic conferences which are set up within special electronic environments. The pioneering groups in this respect have been Peacenet, EcoNnet, GreenNet, WomenNet, LaborNet, GeoNet and many others developed in support of academic and activist communications. The more activist electronic networks are grouped within the Association for Progressive Communications (headquartered in Brazil, which, as a duly constituted body, recently acquired Category I status with ECOSOC). Many NGOs have made use of these electronic environments, notably in preparation for the major UN conferences. Joint statements and lobbying positions are prepared with great facility, and relatively low cost, by such means. With, or without, the collaboration of the relevant UN agencies, the relevant UN documents are made accessible over such networks -- a phenomenon which has increasingly attracted the interest of the UN. The UIA first experimented with the precursors to the current electronic conferences in 1979-80 and advocated their use to the United Nations University which in 1996 started using them in support of its own network. But the UIA has not sought involvement in the current electronic conferences.

  • dominance: As with Internet as a whole, the dominance of North America is widely remarked, whether it be in the hardware, the software, the location of servers, the location of contributors or the use of English. Domain names (addresses) on the Web are principally controlled from the USA and fees are usually payable in dollars only. The development of encryption technology is also controlled from the USA, despite much debate on the issue, and there is widespread recognition that appropriate intelligence agencies can monitor whatever electronic conference communications they choose. In the post-Cold War period less weight is attached to these issues.

    The dominance of North American contributors to electronic conferences has resulted in a reframing of the meaning of "international", especially in relation to nongovernmental collective initiatives through such conferences. This phenomenon might even be seen as the catalyst for the major shift in UN-NGO relations associated with "NGO" participation in the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992. Whether in the electronic conferences or in UN-NGO relations, the challenge to traditional international NGOs has been the degree of involvement of national and sub-national bodies with little interest in the activities of the international NGOs in the same sector of activity. Indeed it is the traditional international bodies which have been slow to make any use of electronic communications. National, and even local, bodies and individuals have responded much more enthusiastically to the opportunities especially in North America. Whether in lobbying the UN secretariat in New York, or in seeking to support it, North American national NGOs have had a disproportionate impact on the current debate on UN-NGO relations. Their initiatives have benefitted from the strategic advantage of electronic communications in focusing their contributions from across the continental USA. Such advantages have been far less readily available to Europe-based NGOs, and, to a much greater extent, those in developing countries -- because of both the absence of telecommunications infrastructure and the high costs imposed by national PTT monopolies when facilities were available. International NGOs have therefore been far less motivated to set up electronic communications because of the disadvantages, and real political problems, created in involving membership from less privileged countries -- and from those who resent the political implications of using English (or avoiding accents).

    To date, the "international" component of electronic association has therefore been less than representative, despite much hype concerning the "global village". This is not to deny that access from a wide ranges of countries is increasingly feasible technically. But cost barriers are highly significant in comparison with the USA where users can afford to remain logged on throughout office hours.

    This environment creates a situation in which "international association" is indeed occurring at extremely rapid pace through electronic conferences. But such association is skewed in several ways. It is a question of access and costs, in addition to a degree of computer sophistication and competence in English, although rapid moves to use of other languages and scripts is now occurring. People from China and Peru can participate as readily as others, and do so. But the people who have access are liable to be those with access to institutions, such as universities, with budgets for the computer infrastructure. They will tend to be in major cities rather than in rural areas (this applies to some degree in North America) because of the telephone charges. But they may also include students at universities, or even the children of professors, or professionals, using facilities at home. Although "cybercafes" are now being set up, it is clear that many kinds of people and groups who work through conventional international NGOs are still far from having ready access to electronic international association.

    As yet there has been no real "clash" between conventional international associations and the electronic variant. Each treats the other as largely irrelevant. The problem arises with conventional bodies that are backed up by electronic facilities and networks. They have a significant advantage as seen in the momentum of the debate surrounding NGO-UN relationships.

    The longer term issue is what it is meaningful to describe as an international association. Earlier it was noted that one guide listed MUDs as the only international organizations on the Internet -- such a preoccupation with the ludic potential of international association certainly has its place. But, more seriously, will wholly electronic "disembodied" international associations be recognized by the UN -- if that continues to be a significant criteria? Will such disembodied entities be obliged to acquire legal status within the current antiquated system of national jurisdictions? Ironically even the essentially electronic International Internet Society -- one of the bodies advising on the evolution of Internet -- is currently seeking national legal status to facilitate certain initiatives -- cloaking itself in forms totally in contrast to its aims, activities and mode of operation. What controls will have to be imposed on electronic international associations, as the current debates on pornography and intellectual property suggest? How will financial controls be ensured? It is possible that the solutions to such problems will create a situation for electronic international associations that will render obsolete the current concerns with an international legal status for conventional NGOs. As with "off-shore" companies, it may be in the interest of international NGOs to establish themselves purely as electronic bodies in order to avoid the antiquated strictures of national legislations.

    "Documentation": The UIA "documentation" mandate calls for some reexamination in the hypertext environment of the Web. It might be argued that an international association is defined as much by the pattern of contacts to which it addresses communications and from which it receives them -- namely those with which it is operationally connected. However, in an electronic context like the Web, such "addresses" are no longer simply an "address list". As hypertext links, they render explicit the associative nature of the association -- with each such link offering an immediate pathway to another such nexus. In the same way other bodies may insert the UIA address in their Web documents -- with or without consent, as with any conventional mailing list. To some degree the importance of the association is then explicitly measured by the number of users (termed "hits") passing through that Web document as a crossroads to other locations.

    In the UIA Yearbook, both e-mail and Web addresses are now given where available. The Web has emerged as a major new focus in seeking information for the Yearbook. There are three aspects to this:

    • detection of organizations not found for the Yearbook by conventional means -- redefining the challenge as to what constitutes a body to be "recognized" by inclusion in the Yearbook
    • rediscovery of bodies lost to the Yearbook, and often assumed dormant or defunct
    • obtaining information from bodies who decline to respond adequately to the normal cycle of questionnaires

    The UIA does indeed track such bodies. The UIA has long ago extended its coverage beyond "duly constituted" organizations to include loosely structured networks and movements which often vigorously deny that they are "organizations" and may not have any permanent secretariat or contact. It also covers bodies which only come into effective existence periodically in connection with international conferences. Such bodies can be considered to number in excess of 15,000, depending on the precise criteria.

    The UIA is faced with the challenge of what to do about electronic "associations" of people, like "newsgroups" where these are of international significance, or so define themselves. Others will certainly take up this challenge, if the UIA does not. However, it is important to ask to whom is this "internationality" important, however it is to be understood.

    From a documentation point of view, one of the most astounding features of the Web, exemplified by the UIA list of Web sites of 2,500 international bodies, is that this "list" is effectively the functional equivalent to the UIA's Yearbook, even though no descriptive editing has been done whatsoever. For a user may simply click on an any organization in the list and be taken into that body's own Web page description -- wherever it may be located around the world.

    "Collect and distribute": As part of its mandated function to "collect and distribute the most comprehensive documentation on international organizations and associations", as noted above, the most extensive collection of international organization Web addresses is now made available by the UIA on the Web. The irony of this relatively compact "document" is that it is in effect a highly efficient index which permits direct user access from the UIA website into the Web pages of the organizations in question. This frequently updated document is currently made available free of charge. In effect it is a substitute for the Yearbook itself. Note that the "collection" and "distribution" functions are effectively embodied into the nature of a Web document. The question of "dissemination" is guaranteed automatically guaranteed by the manner in which Web documents are indexed for access by 50 or more "search engines". These periodically "check" Web sites and build up centralized indexes. This has ensured a level of exposure of UIA documents never before achieved -- and at zero cost.

    "International associations": Of potentially much greater interest with respect to the Encyclopedia however, are the conceptual ramifications of the "international associations" implicit in any substantive document on the Web that has a pattern of hypertext links to other documents on computers elsewhere around the world. In a very important sense, this effectively establishes an international association -- even though the emphasis is on links between items of substance rather than with other bodies, however "disembodied". As is already evident from some extensively linked documents, it is such nexi which may be the basis for the future international organization of knowledge and initiatives.

    The challenge for the UIA is to determine what initiatives to take in response to this strange blossoming of forms of "international association" that are distant from conventional international bodies -- and where perceived mutual irrelevance is the rule rather than the exception.

    "New forms of transnational cooperation": The prime focus of the UIA mandate is the study and documentation of "international organizations and associations" as well as the "new forms of transnational cooperation" they may use. It is they whose activities the UIA aims to facilitate, especially through its information clearinghouse function. It is clear that the Internet, and especially the Web, represents a new frontier in which transnational cooperation will come to be defined in totally new ways. The UIA has been relatively slow to position itself with respect to some of these initiatives.

    "Institute": The UIA purports to operate as an "institute". The electronic environment totally redefines the constraints and opportunities of any traditional understanding of an institute. Conventionally it could be argued that an institute is necessarily characterized by physical meetings of members, supplemented by occasional exchanges of documents, administered by a secretariat -- which may carry out some information handling functions in addition to rationalizing the financial and operational infrastructure to ensure continuity. A great deal of attention may be necessary to safeguard the integrity of the institute in the light of considerations of representativity, access, rights of members, and the like -- all of which are articulated in the statutes or bylaws.

    A major advantage of the electronic environment is that it avoids many of the difficulties encountered in physical operations. Face -to-face meetings for discussion of issues can be avoided. Such meetings can be limited to occasions where other functions are of more significance, and possibly essential: public relations, friendship, spontaneity, persuasion, and the warmth of human contact, etc. (all of which may be especially important to certain cultures and personality types). The burden of travel costs on international associations is thus lifted, and with it the difficulties of ensuring involvement on an equal footing of those from distant continents (or the handicapped). The challenge of ensuring the participation of very busy people is also reframed. Such people may be much more willing to "participate" for a few minutes every few days over an extended period, rather than devote hours or days to occasional meetings in which their interest is limited. Matching schedules ceases to be a problem.

    Both conceptually and administratively the ability to create, refine, exchange, revise, translate and publish documents is transformed. Opening a discussion to a wider audience is no longer constrained by time factors and by the weight of the views of the more articulate participants. Texts can be published on the Web within minutes or days, if desired -- rather than waiting months or years, as with many conventional institutes (and without traditional printing and distribution costs).

    On the negative side, a prime characteristic of the electronic environment is that it always remain uncertain whether recipients "read" any information. Technical facilities indicate whether it has been "received", but there is no way of determining whether any attention has been given to it. However this is in many ways also true of those gathered at physical meetings. Who can say what attention is being given to what, even though people may be exposed to lengthy statements to which they may appear to be listening?

    Relating to this issue is the manner in which interest in an electronic form may blossom and decline with startling rapidity. Participants may switch their attention to other fora -- just as they may effectively cease active involvement in a conventional association. On the other hand, electronic fora may constantly gather new participants from surprising quarters -- bypassing the conventional challenges of maintaining or extending association membership. Individuals may easily and actively "participate" as "members" of far more electronic associations than would be possible in the case of physical associations.

    Of special interest is the manner in which issues can be articulated, subdivided or recombined in a more flexible and dynamic manner than in the physical case where the very concrete constraints of meeting rooms and conflicting sessions may inhibit anything but the most pedestrian initiatives.

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