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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:
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:
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.
The above phenomena reframe the significance of "membership" and "participation" -- offering new and more flexible opportunities in an electronic environment.
Article 4: Full members
In an electronic environment, the concept of full or active membership tends to be associated with particular access rights to communications. Typically this would involve (password controlled) right to insert messages into an ongoing conference (or to read/download reports or periodicals). Such conferences may well be "permanent" rather than limited to a brief period every few years. In this way "plenary" meetings are continuous, although the periodicity of interventions may be weekly (rather than daily or hourly). The right to read such communications (or some of them), or other documents, may however be offered to a wider category of membership (see below).
Electronic communication typically makes much clearer the degree of activity of individual members, if this is to be a criterion of membership. It raises the issue of distinctions to be made between prominent members who are "passive" (possibly only reading communications, if that) and members (possibly of a lesser category) who are very active, even hyper-active. Just as some people dominate physical assemblies through the frequency of their interventions, and others dominate through their lengthy written communications, in an electronic environment there are similar challenges. Typically however others manage their attention to such communications more flexibly, according to their level of interest.
Corresponding to the conventional phenomenon of non-attendance at membership meetings, or failure to read reports, are their equivalents in an electronic environment. People may choose not to enter a given conference, or to do so only rarely. Within a conference, they may choose to electronically "ignore" certain communications.
Just as a President has an important role in guiding and evoking communications in a conventional association, the most successful electronic conferences benefit from the guidance of some form of moderator. This role may be limited to asking questions. It may be extended to "disallowing" certain communications, which are then not incorporated into the permanent proceedings. Alternatively these may be "redirected" to a specialized session.
Article 5: Associate membership
As indicated above, many broader categories of membership can be precisely defined by the manner in which access rights are defined in an electronic environment. Typically, Full Members would have the right to add messages to the collective record of interventions. Associate Members would have the right only to read them. However, Associate Members might have the right to submit comments via a moderator who could then allow them to be inserted in the record, if appropriate.
It should be noted that any observer role can be much more precisely defined. Some associates might be restricted to participation in particular specialized conferences, where they might have a more active communication right.
Article 6: Corresponding organizations
As the loosest category the potential in an electronic environment may perhaps best be understood in a Web environment.
Most intriguing is the way in which links between Web pages of different organizations are in process of being established. If the activities of another body are considered relevant a hyperlink is established -- with, or without, that other body's consent (although courtesy requests are emerging as an aspect of Web savoir faire). This processes represents an operationalization of the notion of "corresponding".
Another operational approach to "corresponding" is to invite or permit feedback on certain topics only from bodies having such a corresponding status.
This category may become extremely important in the future Web evolution of "publications" such as the Yearbook, the Encyclopedia, or Transnational Associations. As these evolve into Web-centred activities, the partnership with "corresponding" organizations sustaining the quality of information will continue to increase.
Article 7: General Assembly
As discussed above in relation to Full Members, the notion of a General Assembly can be fruitfully reframed for an association where physical displacement of members from distant continents can be prohibitively expensive. It may even be argued that the requirement for such displacement, in order to ensure the representativity of the Assembly, is an antiquated imposition on the decision-making processes of international bodies.
It is useful to recall the inefficiencies of face-to-face gatherings of more than a small group of people. Time severely constrains and inhibits communication from more than a few, and obliges many to wait patiently until they can legitimately request the floor. This discourages participation of those with other commitments and busy schedules, who may only wish to intervene on a very precise point.
An electronic environment allows for permanent assemblies, rather than extremely occasional ones. In terms of contributions, it is worth noting the way in which substantive contributions may blur into what amounts to an electronic journal. Rather than presenting the assembly proceedings as a sequence of long texts, they may be presented as a menu of interventions which a reader is free to explore and re-explore. If necessary these may be presented with abstracts. In this sense the proceedings may be edited to cluster associated topics, perhaps to deal differently with substantive and administrative interventions.
An electronic environment allows for sophisticated voting techniques, with the considerable advantage that voting can be allowed over a period (eg a week). It may also move beyond binary voting to include forms of voting more common in opinion analysis.
Increasingly, the financial burden of interpretation and the restriction on participation that it otherwise implies, can be resolved -- at least to some degree -- through automatic translation. Although of modest quality, this at least allows for wider participation at lower cost -- essential to resource-constrained organizations.
Article 8: Council
The management of electronic associations is a new frontier. It should not be assumed that it is necessarily free from the manipulative excesses and abuses common in conventional associations. These have to be guarded against. But the point should however be stressed that, as in conventional associations, it is a challenge to balance guiding (rather than discouraging) the (over)enthusiastic activists whilst sustaining the (often passive) interest of important supporters with many other commitments.
Any Council will have to distinguish between its functions in reconciling continuing physical operations with the emerging electronic operations that may come to partially replace them. On the other hand, with regard to electronic operations it will need to have a well-defined role in managing those communications which are central to the strategic evolution of the association. Typically this will focus on communication rights.
As with the Assembly, there is no reason why Council deliberations should not be largely, if not wholly, conducted electronically. This would have the advantage of opening effective participation to members spread around the world. It would allow them to intervene (and vote) at their convenience as in any other electronic conference. In effect the Council, like the Assembly, becomes "permanent" rather than occasional.
The possibilities of automatic translation, noted with respect to the Assembly, also apply.
The possible electronic relation between the Assembly and the Council, in the light of overlapping membership, will become another frontier worth exploring.
Issues relating to restrictions on the nationality of Council membership, imposed by the national law under which an association is registered, may become increasingly irrelevant. It is likely that far greater importance will be attached to the effectiveness of participation and the interests that the Council member represents -- within the framework specified by the statutes and bylaws.
Concerns regarding members substituting for one another, in the event of physical absence, become largely irrelevant.
Article 9: Council Bureau
An electronic association, in contrast with a physical one, offers a very large range of possibilities of oversight by members appointed for that purpose. This may indeed be defined electronically to a large degree. It may, if appropriate, extend from control over communications in general (as discussed above) to a capacity to read any correspondence sent or received within the association framework.
The administration of an electronic association becomes much more focused on the substantive concerns of the association rather than on the infrastructure through which the work of the association is carried out.
Article 10: Treasurer-General and Auditor
For an association operating to a more or less large degree in an electronic environment, financial issues must clearly persist although they are liable to be focused quite differently.
At present there is widespread, and intense, focus on electronic payment systems and the manner in which they can be implemented to facilitate financial transactions on the Web. These will have a major impact on the life of associations.
It is to be expected that the following association operations will be totally transformed:
This will apply both to transactions by others with the association and by the association itself with others. Ultimately (as at present in the USA) associations will increasingly conduct banking and tax operations electronically.
These changes are becoming most evident in the "marketing" of an association's products on the Web. Placing information onto the Web directly exposes it immediately to a potential market of tens of millions. Such "exposure" is becoming associated with the immediate ability of the user to pay for the product. Furthermore the product may itself take a variety of forms:
Article 11: Development Committee
There is every reason for this, and other committees, to operate electronically. This would place the emphasis on substantive contributions and discussions rather than on the complexities and costs of gathering people from distant locations under conditions which restrict the time and nature of their contributions and exchanges.
Article 12: Comité d'honneur
See Article 11
Article 13: Special Commissions
See Article 11
Article 14: Financial resources
See Article 10
Increasingly the "constitution" of an organization will increasingly be defined very precisely by the software rules through which communications are ensured and channelled. In a period when software goes through a new generation on average every 6 months, this means that new opportunities for the way the asociation will work will emerge with that frequency. What then is to be meant by "amending the constitution"?
It may be of interest to specify in the constitution how key members of the Bureau or Council are to benefit from such facilities. Clearly possession of some electronic access is becoming essential to international association activity. Such access may become a requirement for performing a particular role, and assessing the electronic activities of the association, whether or not the necessary technology is supplied (and funded) by the association.
Of special interest in regard to dissolution is how the electronic records and stored information are to be disposed, possibly with a view to being reactivated under other circumstances.
This work is licenced under a creative commons licence.