by GRAIN | 11 Dec 1995

December 1995


The amount of information available on the Internet is growing by the day, and it is becoming an important source for GRAIN's work. We thought it would be useful to give some general background to our readers on what it is all about, how it functions and what you need to get into it. This short article also introduces a new regular documentation service for our readers: in future issue of Seedling the Resources and Documentation section will include reviews of interesting biodiversity and biotechnology-related sites to visit on the Internet.


The Internet is a net of computer networks. A universal language known as the IP/TCP (Internet Protocol/Transmision Control Protocol) allows the exchange of information between different kinds of computers. Telephone lines connect the compters, each of which has an address assigned by the Domain Nomenclature System, which is universally recognized. Some of these computers function as "nodes", which means they automatically receive information, assess its origin and destination and instantly select the most suitable place to send it. In this way, information flows from one node to another via the Internet across the planet. Both the nodes and the connections between them make up what is known as "cyberspace".

Although it has a militar origin, the Internet (or 'Net' for short) is not the product of a single designer, but the result of the extension and expansion of individual communication networks that were set up to enhance the sharing of information between universities and public research centres. The way the system has been set up has two main consequences. The first is the emergence of a decentralised communication system. The second is the sharing of costs. Each node pays for connections to several other nodes which in turn pay to those connecting them to the rest of the net. As a result, any user may contact a computer in another continent for the same cost of reaching the nearest node.

The flow of information among millions of computers has been made possible not just by the IP/TCP protocols, but because of the use of the server/client architecture. A server is a programme on the transmitter computer that standardises the information in such a way that it can be readily deciphered by its partner programme, the client, which could be in any one of the millions of computers on the net that will receive the information.

One of the potential drawbacks of the Internet is that it adds another hole in the fabric linking North and South: an information gap. According to a recent Panos Institute Media Briefing, both the lack of reliable (or any!) telephone lines and the higher (relative and absolute) costs of both equipment and Internet providers in the South are at the heart of this gap. Because of this, Internet access is likely to reinforce the existing intellectual elite. At the same time, Internet is providing communities, NGOs, activists and concerned people in the South unprecedented opportunities for political and cultural influence. Internet also has practical advantages: Panos reports that in western Zambia, for example, doctors working in rural hospitals have access to electronic mail, which allows them to get prompt specialist advice from the Lusaka Medical School.

What can be done in the Internet?

Information can be handled in many ways on the Net. The TELNET service allows the user direct access to a computer, as a tempory terminal (that is: it allows to work in that computer). Some nodes store information in servers, offering it to the public. These servers act as relay nodes for users, enabling them to contact other nodes hosting related or specialised information. This process is often described as "navigating" or "surfing" the Net. The Net also allows users to retrieve both files and programs from other computers, through the FTP (File Transfer Protocol) service. Electronic mail services allow users to send a message to as many email addresses as desired, for the same cost as sending it to one. Electronic conference systems, based in the email system, allow people around the world to network on issues of common concern. News groups allow an open access to debates on an almost endless variety of issues.

What do you need to enter the Internet?

The Internet can be reached several ways. Each method requires:

* A computer: Any computer enables entry to the Internet, if it has
* a modem, which is a device allowing a computer to use
* a telephone line, through which you can contact an
* Internet provider, which is an organisation owning at least one
* Internet node, which may be used as a bridge to access all the Internet.

There are three kinds of Internet providers: commercial companies (i.e. IBM, CompuServe), private organisations (as the Association for Progressive Communication, or APC), and public networks (which are normally set up to serve governments, universities and research centres). Some of them only offer some of the services, such as the email. Two things must be borne in mind when choosing a provider: the cost of the telephone call to reach the node — to be paid to the telephone company — and the cost of the Internet connection — which depends on the provider. Normally, providers charge according to the amount of time connected to the Net, not for the amount of information that is reached or retrieved.

The best way to access the Internet in your country or region is by getting a connection to a public node through a local university or research institute. If that is not possible, try a private organisation such as the APC, which will always be cheaper than a commercial provider. Since, as was stated before, the Net is not a monolithic structure but a web of webs, navigating will be quite bewildering at first. Below we recommend a good introductory manual that has been published for NGO users. In future Seedling issues, look at the regular Resources and Documentation section for more Internet information addresses.

Some places to visit

The WWW Virtual Library: Biotechnology, General/information Sources Including Other Biotechnology Directories — provides a large list of biotechnology-related web sites, both public and industry, and many thematic areas related to biotechnology, from commerce to patents to pharmaceutical information. This is a good place to start at if you are looking for information from mainstream institutions. At the moment they do not seem not to include NGO perspectives (or web sites). This might, however, change if NGOs asked for their web sites to be included.

The Agricultural Biotechnology Center (Hungary) is a well connected web site that you will often come across when navigating in search of biotech information. It limits its information to the centre's activities. Besides that specific information, the interest of the ABC relies on the fact that it is running an experimental news-reader programme allowing access to Bionet conferences.

Bio-Online is the (US) Biotechnology Industry Organization's public relations web page. It is a good place to go and look for general information on the US biotech sector: number of companies, number of employees, revenues, sales, patent applications, and so on. The information seems to be updated from time to time (it includes 1994 data).

The Biotechnology Information Center (BIC) is a service of the National Agricultural Library of the US Department of Agriculture. Designed as a service to the biotechnology industry, it contains useful research tools such as a thematic bibliography (from the National Agricultural Library's Electronic Bulletin Board System (ALF), a complete BIC publication list, which is updated quite regularly, a list of Ag Biotech-related data bases (from June 93); a list of (and connections to) Biotech Newsletters (where you can find alternative points of view, such as IATP and RAFI); and multiple connections to other biotech sites (both WWW sites and Gophers). Perhaps the most interesting service the BIC provides is the FULL TEXT of all of US PATENTS on biotechnology, both for 1994 and 1995. Worth a visit!


The Rural Advancement Foundation International has its own web site where it is possible to find out what they do and even who they are: ever wondered who was hiding behind "Hope Shand" or "Edward Hammond?. Now you can find their photos on-line, along with RAFI documents. All the RAFI COMMUNIQUES from June 1991 are available, although they are not necessary complete (the table on biopiracy is not there). RAFI OCCASIONAL PAPERS are also on line, and RAFI has an ongoing project to include the Spanish version of some of their documents. The main pages introduce the organisation and reports on the key issues RAFI is working on (where these lead to RAFI documents). Only a small complaint: we found some difficulties in reading the main pages, because of a lack of contrast between the background and the writting.

In an unprecedented move towards transparency and open participation, the FAO Plant Genetic Resources (PGR) Department has set up a web site for the upcoming International Technical Conference (ITC) on Plant Genetic Resources. Besides a presentation of the Conference, it includes the country reports that have already been sent to the Secretary of the Conference, and also an outline of both the report on the state of the world's PGR and the Global Plant of Action, which will both be the main outcomes of the ITC. In order to promote debate, electronic conferences (accessible via both e-mail and a web browser program) have been set up on: Plant Breeding/Improvement, Genetic Diversity/Genetic Erosion, Ex Situ Collections, In Situ Conservation and Crop Improvement, Regeneration and Trading/Education.

Author: GRAIN
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