Law in the Internet Society

How the Internet can Help Solve the Problem of Lack of Mechanisms to Ensure Legitimacy and Accountability of Civil Society Organizations


The work of civil society organizations (CSOs) in advocating causes was traditionally linked to the resources it had at its avail, but the internet has changed this. Now, virtually anyone with internet access is able to promote a cause. The emergence of this “virtual” constellation of CSOs that do most of their work through the internet has sharpened concerns for checks on the accountability of CSOs. Where it becomes easy to participate in the symphony of voices calling for change, it becomes difficult to distinguish the groups genuinely advocating change and the hoaxes. This problem of demanding meaningful accountability from CSOs is especially difficult because of the lack of any effective mechanisms to check their efforts. However, the tools with which to investigate the legitimacy and demand accountability from CSOs may lie in internet-based tools as well.

Whereas NGOs can embrace all of the opportunities available to them to be noticed, from blogging, podcasts and social networking sites to creating their own online news platforms, other bodies, including the communities supported by the NGOs, the donors and other supporters of the NGOs, and the competitors, opponents or detractors of NGOs, have these very same tools at their disposal, with which to build up, or ruin, the reputations of these NGOs.

The value of this ability to evaluate and criticize civil society activity is two-fold. First, these news items from the critics’ own blog or website are picked up by donor organizations as they conduct due diligence on the civil society groups that they enter into support agreements with. Highly negative press will caution potential donors on the effectiveness and accountability of the potential CSO partner. It is simple matter, for instance, to run the name of a potential donee CSO and the word “fraud” or “scam” through a search engine, to police the past behavior of a CSO.

Second, civil society groups and their critics are not under commercial pressure as with mainstream media and can utilize internet tools to obsess on otherwise non-commercially appealing topics. And as interest in the matter increases through the aggregation of interest through blogs and news portals, the story can be picked up and break into mainstream media. An example of this is prominence gained by the Dynamic Teen Company, a small CSO based in the Philippines, through an internet campaign that gained them international support.

The ability to use internet tools to monitor CSO behavior may lead to CSOs engaging in "self-censorship" in terms of their internet promotion. For instance, in the case of CSOs working for the cause of refugees in Kosovo, a network of advocacy groups (the "Groups") filed third party claims for "personal injury or death" against the UN alleging that the UN settled refugees from the Kosovo-Serbian conflict in camps that the groups allege the UN knows are contaminated by lead. These claims seek damages of $50,000 for each of the refugees who are living in the camps.

The Groups have engaged in an internet information campaign. Their websites describe the plight of the refugees, they have write-ups on the work of one of the lawyers working on the case, they have features of the circumstances of the Kosovo refugees in BBC, Australian Dateline and the Guardian, and they have led an e-mail writing campaigns to various persons in the UN. But the Groups do not fully utilize all available internet tools. Not surprisingly, given the failure of the Groups to use all the internet tools available, among other reasons, the campaign has not been able to move the UN into action. The UN has not evacuated the refugees or made any payments. Information on the cause has not fully spread.

However, the Groups have not availed of these tools not because of a lack of zealousness in pursuing their cause but precisely because they recognize that opening their entire case to the world through the internet opens them to evaluation, audit, and criticism. Why is the claim a third party claim for physical injuries or death, for instance? The very appellation of the complaint shows that the lawyers are not clear on the facts on which they base the complaint. Why is the claim one for damages, rather than for the immediate evacuation of the refugees from the lead camps? What is the portion that the lawyers stand to gain from the damages that may be awarded to the refugees? Further, spreading this information could possibly attract even more lawyers to the pool of defendants. The refugees on whose behalf the claims have been filed represent a small fraction of the refugees in the camps. The Groups may be waiting for the outcome of this claim before proceeding with a claim on behalf of the other refugees. Given all these factors, the Groups chose to wage a less than optimal internet campaign for the cause they are advocating. As a result, the Groups do not receive the support that they could possibly be receiving. This self-censorship may work to the advantage of other CSOs that wish to aid the cause of the Kosovo refugees: it frees up the virtual conversation for CSOs who may have a better approach to aiding Kosovo refugees, and it would be these CSOs who will obtain attention and aid for their cause.

These examples show how web-based information can provide tools to check CSO accountability, which could be used by private institutions, international organizations and governments when deciding whether or not to support a particular CSO activity. Web-based information can help ferret out situations of inefficiency or even fraud, and this could help determine the CSOs that are worth supporting. The internet could itself provide the very tools in solving the problems that arise given the ability of virtually any CSOs to take their cause to the internet.


This was a very interesting piece, and it is nice to see the new possibilities of the internet being put to good use. One question I had, however, was how or whether internet strategies are being used by refugees themselves, rather than by advocacy groups. You discuss the potential of blogging, but it seems like the blogging may be even more effective if refugees themselves were to contribute. Perhaps you could discuss how other technological advances, such as affordable netbooks, or increased internet/mobile phone distribution (if such distribution has occurred) has helped or could help disseminate public knowledge about various causes.

-- BradleyMullins - 01 Dec 2009

Thanks for your comments Bradley. I was not able to discuss this in the paper, and it may be a good idea for me to do so, but the refugees are living in very poor conditions and the infrastructure is very poor, so they can't quite contribute to the effort of making their cause known. I will look for how I can incorporate this fact in the paper. Thanks again!

-- AllanOng - 03 Dec 2009

A friend of mine works for Human Rights Watch and I kept receiving its news article, however, I did not have an image of how they make influence in saving refugee before reading your paper. It was a good guidance for me to understand how those advocacy group tries to work using the power of the Internet.

-- AndoY - 17 Dec 2009

  • I agree that this is informative about a current situation. But I don't see the analytical payoff from the exploration, particularly for us. The problem presented to all civil society organizations in the past was how to get their issues before the public given their resource limitations. That problem has changed conclusively with the advent of the forms of communication we have talked about. The particular facts in Kosovo don't seem to me to have any effect analytically: you are speaking generically. Nor do the international relations aspects of the situation have anything in particular for us: we are simply observing that "on the Internet no one knows you're an ..." in the context of NGOs and state actors.

  • If the example has something more than a generic point to make, we need to see what it is. If the generic aspect of the situation is under discussion we need an idea that goes beyond where we have been already. If you try rewriting the essay so that the new idea you have about the situation goes right up front, and is stated in the first paragraph, I think you will be off to the best possible start in revision.

Everyone, thanks for your comments. I have revised the paper as of 23 Jan 2010, so the comments above may no longer address the current version.

-- AllanOng - 23 Jan 2010

I think this was an effective revision. But surely you are aware that you are now just under 1500 words, and must cut by a third. You solved your problems without taking a hard look at the sentences and the paragraphs to remove waste. About a quarter will come out easily. The remainder will require a little more willingness to sacrifice.



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r21 - 07 Sep 2011 - 00:44:08 - IanSullivan
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