From Jim Gilliam's blog archives
Internet Revolution, Take Two

August 11, 2003 7:58 AM

The geeks now have their eyes set on politics:


After years as political agnostics, the programmers and engineers who orchestrated the technological revolution of the 1990s are trying to reboot government. Top technology executives such as Bill Gates found their public voice years ago. Now, the tens of thousands of technology workers who toiled in cubicles writing software and creating gadgets are making their influence felt.

They have money, earned during the boom. They have time, found since the bust. And they are using their technological savvy to recruit even casual Internet users to their causes.

Full Article:

Techies, Politics Now Click
The 'geeks' who once shunned activism amid the digital revolution are using their money and savvy to influence public policy.
By Joseph Menn, LA Times Staff Writer

The first call came before 9 a.m.

For the next eight hours, they kept coming: call after call at the rate of 20 per second, crippling the telephone systems of several U.S. senators.

The geeks were speaking — in opposition to the imminent war in Iraq.

After years as political agnostics, the programmers and engineers who orchestrated the technological revolution of the 1990s are trying to reboot government. Top technology executives such as Bill Gates found their public voice years ago. Now, the tens of thousands of technology workers who toiled in cubicles writing software and creating gadgets are making their influence felt.

They have money, earned during the boom. They have time, found since the bust. And they are using their technological savvy to recruit even casual Internet users to their causes.

They want to make sure civil liberties aren't trampled in the push for greater security. They want privacy respected. And they want the media and the political conversation in general to be freed from the dominance of a small number of powerful groups and corporations. Otherwise, they are hard to place on the political spectrum.

One of the leaders of this loose-knit movement is Wes Boyd, a 42-year-old computer programmer who works out of a book-lined home office in a leafy section of Berkeley.

He made his money selling computer games and screen savers — those flying toasters that became an early icon of high-tech chic. Then, disgusted by what he saw as the political grandstanding surrounding the impeachment of President Clinton in 1998, Boyd posted a Web site to vent.

MoveOn.org fielded 500 hits its first day, 7,000 the second. Within a few months, more than 250,000 visitors had signed an electronic petition calling for Congress to censure Clinton and "move on." Those early visitors formed the core of a group that now claims more than 1.3 million U.S. followers.

MoveOn members pay no dues but agree to receive e-mail notices of new positions and calls for action. Many pass on the information they get, becoming volunteer recruiters. MoveOn takes stands on a variety of issues, but describes itself primarily as a catalyst for grass-roots action — on whatever its members think is important.

The group helped persuade more than 100,000 people to join an antiwar march in San Francisco in February, the largest such demonstration in the U.S.

It generated 150,000 electronic complaints to the Federal Communications Commission about its plan to let big media companies get even bigger, a policy change now under assault in Congress. And hundreds of thousands of MoveOn supporters took part in the February phone blitz of U.S. senators over their support of the Iraq war.

"You wish these things would be taken care of by other people," said Boyd, who founded MoveOn with his wife, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Joan Blades, after spending most of his life on the political sidelines. "But it turns out that if we don't play, if we don't work to make a difference, no one's going to do it. We just discovered that we couldn't look away anymore."

The organization raised $3.5 million to give to candidates who ran for federal office last year. In April, it said it was dedicating itself to unseating President Bush in 2004, though it has not come out in support of a candidate to replace him.

"We've been trying to engage people in other things, and almost always the answer comes back, 'Why bother? It's not going to matter if we don't get rid of Bush,' " Boyd said.

Dislodging a well-funded president might be beyond its reach. But some analysts see MoveOn and similar groups as a potent political force.

"I don't know of any group that has 1.3 million members who are as motivated to act when asked to," said Michael Cornfield, research director of George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet. MoveOn, he said, "has the potential to become through the Internet what the Christian Coalition became through direct mail."

Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee credit MoveOn and other Web activists with igniting the uproar that caused them to vote to cut off funding for the Terrorism Information Awareness program, a Bush administration initiative to scour databases for information on private citizens.

A Growing Movement

Another techno-populist group, DigitalConsumer.org, has attracted more than 50,000 adherents to its cause of protecting the right of consumers to make copies of the electronic content they buy.

The group was founded in 2001 by Joe Kraus and Graham Spencer, Stanford University graduates who made millions of dollars from their Web search firm Excite Inc., and it reflects the wider geek movement in its preference for personal freedom over increased protection of intellectual property.

DigitalConsumer's congressional testimony and lobbying helped kill a bill that would have granted legal immunity to entertainment companies if they damaged computers suspected of being used to swap pirated music. The group is now drumming up opposition to legislation that would make uploading a copyright song to the Internet a crime punishable by more than a year in jail.

Elsewhere in Silicon Valley, technology enthusiasts became irritated that movie studios and television networks were trying to prevent them from skipping commercials when using ReplayTV, a digital version of a videocassette recorder.

The entertainment companies sued Sonicblue Inc., the Santa Clara, Calif., firm that made ReplayTV devices, prompting a group of consumers — including Craig Newmark, founder of a popular Internet bulletin board, Craigslist.org — to file a countersuit supporting the manufacturer. ReplayTV is now made made by a division of D&M Holdings Inc., which recently decided to eliminate the devices' ad-skipping ability, though the suit is pending.

Similar techno-activism helped the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has operated below the radar for most of its 13-year history, triple its dues-paying membership to 8,500 in the last three years. The foundation made its name representing in court a programmer who developed a system for encrypting private e-mail. The case established that software deserved protection as speech under the 1st Amendment.

More recently, the foundation has provided legal support to two song-swapping services, Morpheus and Grokster, in their battles with record labels. It also has helped block state versions of a controversial federal law that would have given Internet service providers the power to decide what sorts of devices could get access to the Net.

A primary issue uniting activists is what they see as the war on terrorism's collateral damage to civil liberties. Elements of the USA Patriot Act — including secret property searches and the tracking of e-mail — have provoked the libertarian right even more than the liberal left.

"There's nothing that gets people in the high-tech world more excited than Big Brother and the misuse of technology, especially by the federal government," said Wade Randlett, an advisor to DigitalConsumer.

The libertarian mind-set among the technologists who congregate around San Francisco has many origins, said Paulina Borsook, author of "Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech."

The technology culture of Silicon Valley came into its own after the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, "when people were very suspicious of government," she said. Many engineers were impressed with the tech sector's rapid advance when it was free of most regulation. Then there is what Borsook calls "the scary, essentialist notion that there's something about working with computers that makes you the solo commander of your destiny."

Although libertarian philosophy has had adherents in Silicon Valley, they have shied away from political activism. This was in stark contrast to Hollywood, whose screen stars and studio bosses have long lent glamour and financial support to Democratic candidates and causes.

"There was a generalized feeling here, whatever your politics, that it was sort of unseemly," said Doug Carlston, who directs MoveOn's political action committee and previously co-founded Broderbund Software Inc., the company that made "Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?" and other educational computer games.

That feeling began to change in 1996, when a San Diego trial lawyer, William Lerach, spearheaded a statewide ballot initiative to make it easier to sue companies in California courts when their stocks tumbled. High-tech companies, whose stocks are famously volatile, felt they had to fight back. Led by Tom Proulx, co-founder of financial software firm Intuit Inc., and prominent venture capitalist John Doerr, the valley led the trouncing of Proposition 211.

"We concluded that the valley needed to have a political voice," Proulx said. "It can't just rally the troops in an emergency and then disband our army."

Building a Voice

That realization was cemented in 1998 with the passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. As the DMCA extended copyrights into the digital world, it limited the ability of technologists to tinker with software protecting copyrighted material. Because the language in the act is vague, it has been used for purposes far removed from protecting movies and music from piracy. Many in Silicon Valley saw it as stifling innovation and creativity.

Among the firms successfully sued under the act was a maker of ink cartridges that tweaked software to make its products compatible with another company's printers. The DMCA also reduced protection for those who cracked DVD encryption for innocent purposes — such as playing a legally purchased movie on a computer running the Linux operating system.

Then came the Bush administration's expansion of searches, wiretapping and other law enforcement powers after Sept. 11, 2001.

All the while, technology was spilling out of office parks and into homes. Consumers were getting increasingly concerned about junk e-mail and the amount of personal information available on the Internet. Tens of millions flocked to song-swapping service Napster, which was shut down by a federal judge because it ran afoul of the DMCA and other copyright laws.

At MoveOn, issues and allies are chosen carefully. The group created its own software that allows members to set priorities and take stands on issues by plebiscite.

On those key issues, MoveOn provides money for full-page newspaper ads. A recent series depicted Bush under the headline "Misleader" and faulted his prewar claims that Iraq was concealing "some of the most lethal weapons ever devised."

The group also conducts campaigns with groups such as People for the American Way, which monitors judicial nominations, and Win Without War, which opposed the war in Iraq.

"What is new in the valley is people applying the tools they know how to use to other problems — the problems of politics," said John Gilmore, a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Indeed, Boyd of MoveOn works like any other business-minded engineer with enough seniority to sign on from home. As one computer displays e-mail and another instant messages, he uses conference calls to query his tiny staff about what political acts would provide the biggest return on MoveOn's investment.

For some groups, the challenge is simply to make voters and politicians aware of issues that might otherwise escape notice.

Eyeing Washington

At the Electronic Frontier Foundation, staff activist Ren Bucholz is trying to thwart what the group sees as an attempt to shackle communication between the government and its citizens. The U.S. Forest Service floated a proposal in December that would let it give less weight to e-mails commenting on proposed rules if the messages appeared to be computer-assisted versions of the same letter.

To forestry officials, the change would mean a welcome reduction in workload. To Bucholz, it would undercut electronic activism.

"It's important that all the comments at least go into the public record," Bucholz said, because that would give the writers standing for subsequent court challenges.

Looking to the future of techno-activism, Boyd sees vast numbers of frustrated people who are just starting to act.

"I think the base is inexhaustible," he said. "Hopefully, we can show others that."

MoveOn is considering hiring a Washington lobbyist. It's a tricky step for a group that shuns the methods of the political establishment. Boyd and his colleagues think they can manage the transition — as long as they don't adopt Beltway tactics.

"People have gotten so turned off, so cynical, that you see policy torqued around by the extremes. The only people playing are freaks and weirdos," Boyd said. "The more people we get back to the table, the more sound our policy will be."

More from the archive in Internet, Politics, Tech.

Internet Revolution, Take Two (08.11.2003)

Next Entry: 78% Turnout! (08.11.2003)
Previous Entry: A 16 Page Ballot (08.10.2003)

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