Shooting Blanks Growing digital rights movement needs to put some political heads on stakes — fast
Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Monday, April 22, 2002
Earlier this month, two prominent members of the open-source-software community, Jeff Gerhardt, host of the online “Linux Show,” and Doc Searls, senior editor of The Linux Journal, announced the formation of a sorely needed new lobbying group they’ve dubbed GeekPAC.
The group’s organizing manifesto has been posted online for public comment. Its opening pages masterfully detail the interrelated technical and business issues that are helping to hobble the high-tech economy.
Ticking them off one by one, it lists the top 13 obstacles facing the high-tech community, and explains how in each area, narrow corporate interests are using the federal government to erect roadblocks that are slowing down the pace of innovation and economic growth. The primary goal of all these efforts, they note, is to preserve the profit streams of a handful of big media companies, even if it means stopping technological progress dead in its tracks.
The problem here is the anemic effort GeekPAC’s founders have proposed to deal with these concerns, which involves little more than a public-relations campaign similar to those that have already been mounted by several other high-tech lobbying groups that Congress regularly ignores.
In short, they know what needs to be done; they just don’t know how to do it.
There is a better approach GeekPAC could take, but before we get to that, let’s review what’s at stake.
The issues GeekPAC seeks to address include the full alphabet soup of acronyms that regularly draw hisses at information-technology gatherings, most notably the DMCA (the Digital Millennium Copyright Act), UCITA (the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act), CARP (the Copyright Arbitration and Royalty Panel), and the CBDTPA, South Carolina Sen. Fritz Hollings’ ridiculously misnamed Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act, the latest salvo from the recording, movie and television industry.
It’s hard to say which of these draconian new or proposed laws and regulations are worse. One of them (the DMCA) has already criminalized software development — in particular, the release of new software that decrypts encoded recordings. It’s as if the government banned saws because they can be used to cut into someone’s house. As a consequence, software developers who experiment with new approaches to decryption, which could lead to progress in other critical business-related software areas, now do so at the risk of being thrown into jail.
CARP, meanwhile, promises to put fledgling online broadcasters out of business by imposing royalty fees that competing traditional broadcasters, who have better lobbyists, don’t have to pay.
What really has the GeekPAC founders steamed, though, is Hollings’ most recent entertainment-industry-backed proposal, which would mandate that all future home-entertainment electronic devices and computers contain “rights management” technology patented by Microsoft. If Hollings’ legislation becomes law, new computers and other electronic devices could play back only digital transmissions they’re authorized to receive. The content providers would also get control over when and how many times their programs could be viewed.
As a result, consumers would lose the ability to decide which digital goods they want to copy, when they can copy them, when they can listen to or view programs or recordings they have purchased and who they can share them with. “They want to lock down the Internet and replace it with a ‘content-delivery system’ designed for little more than delivering digital-rights-managed media streams to passive couch potatoes,” write Gerhardt and Searls in summing up the recent onslaught of corporate-sponsored so-called antipiracy legislation.
They also wonder out loud why the $600 billion-a-year information-technology sector is letting itself get pushed around by the $20 billion-a-year entertainment industry.
The answer to that question seems pretty obvious. The IT industry is getting pushed around because it isn’t pushing back. Unfortunately, GeekPAC’s proposed approach promises to continue that sorry trend.
Current plans call for the group to raise $200,000 to support lobbying efforts, as well as a related public-education group they’re calling the American Open Technology Consortium. According to the group’s working paper, the money will be used to create a “dream team” of “geek spokespeople” who will “travel across the country on a whistle-stop campaign” to educate government leaders about the dangers of choking off technical innovation. Most of the group’s money, they say, will be spent on lobbying staff.
Yup. You heard that right. Frequent-flying geeks to the rescue.
More than living up to its name, this call to action by GeekPAC also suggests that the group “can have a significant influence by providing a funding channel tool of small but frequent donations through a congressional-review database linked to an [e]-commerce engine.”
Put into English, that means members of Congress will get a small check for their campaigns whenever they vote right. The problem with that approach, however, is that sending out small checks to hundreds of politicians is like peeing in the ocean. It may feel good, but no one notices.
Instead, to stem the tide, GeekPAC, or some other similar organization, needs to make an example out of someone in Congress, and do it quick. When the National Rifle Association, or the Christian Coalition or Emily’s List, for that matter, want action on an issue, the strategists behind those well-run groups usually pick a smart fight with one or more of their key opponents. They target their resources to just those specific races, sometimes to just one race. Rather than give 200 politicians $1,000 each, the savviest PACs instead will spend $200,000 or more kicking the bejesus out of just one single office holder.
The tactic puts all the other office holders on notice that if they step out of line, or tilt too far in the wrong direction, they could be next. A few hundred thousand dollars spread across the nation won’t do much to get the digital rights message across. But poured into a single well-chosen congressional or senatorial district, it could make all the difference.
Here’s the winning message an ad in such a campaign might convey: “Did you know that Senator Bumblehead wants to get inside your house and make it illegal for you to copy movies, TV or radio programs? If he wins, you lose. You’ll lose the right to control what takes place in your own living room and in your office. The economy will lose, too, because technology will be permanently frozen in place so a handful of big entertainment firms can preserve their profits and their antiquated ways of doing business. There is an alternative, though. You can join together with other consumers and entrepreneurs to make sure that this time, Senator Bumblehead is the loser. ”
Targeting a handful of specific lawmakers for defeat makes a lot more sense than putting a bunch of geeks on planes. It’s also a much better way to get other legislators to pay closer attention to the complicated technical and legal issues involved.
Put just one or two notches on the high-tech pistol by actually defeating some of the industry’s biggest adversaries, and we might finally see the beginning of the end of the bought-and-paid-for legislation that is rapidly killing off the high-tech growth engine.
If and when GeekPAC’s founders figure out that part of the equation, I’ll be sending them my check.
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