Shooting Blanks

Growing digital rights movement needs to put some political heads on stakes — fast.

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.

Author: Hal Plotkin

News Service: SF Gate

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/gate/archive/2002/04/22/geekp.DTL