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Lost in Cyberspace

Activism rejuvenated online

This article was originally published on November 16, 1999 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

Maybe it's because the online community is still small enough that folks feel they can make a difference. Or maybe it's because the entire concept of cyberspace remains so new to so many that even the bureaucrats don't have a firm idea as to what they should be doing.

But recent history is clear: Organized activism can exert an influence on the decision-making process regarding the Internet, an influence more immediate and powerful than in the physical world.

When Congress first began debating the Communications Decency Act a few years back, online activists began campaigning against it. Although they were unable to convince President Clinton to veto it, once it was overturned by the Supreme Court (for unconstitutionally restricting free speech), the president's technology advisor, Ira Magaziner, was persuaded by free-speech advocates to come out against any further attempts to revive the CDA – a position the president eventually adopted.

A similar battle was won in the area of digital cryptography. After years of trying to block encryption programs from being distributed via electronic bulletin boards (BBSs) and the Internet, the government eventually dropped illegal export charges against Phil Zimmerman, author of Pretty Good Privacy, a shareware encoding program.

Two of the leading online advocacy groups are also two of the oldest: Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Both were organized long before the popularity of the World Wide Web exploded in the mid-'90s; long before other civil liberties groups decided to jump on the Internet bandwagon. EFF was active in online freedom of speech battles when the arena was still the dial-up BBS. And CPSR was started during President Reagan's first term, a full decade before most of the Internet was public and when a hot computer was still an Apple ][.

CPSR has experienced a surge in activism of late. A bit dormant in the early '90s, CPSR is currently a leading voice on issues ranging from access (how can we help low-income citizens get access to online resources) to community networks, computer ethics to the digital gender gap. Their Web site provides links to online documents concerning these issues and many more, with CPSR-authored working papers for many.

Not everyone will agree with all of CPSR's positions. Their hostility to Caller ID strikes me as a bit on the Luddite end of things, and their founding purpose of opposing as immoral the so-called "Star Wars Initiative" for a ballistic missile defensive shield seems a bit silly. (SDI may have been impractical, perhaps, but how can building a defensive system possibly be immoral?) Also, as a longtime member of CPSR, it seems to me that too often the "official" position of CPSR is arrived at by the leaders with too little input from the general membership. (Although, in the leaders' defense, those of us in the general membership usually don't bother replying when asked to provide input.)

To their credit, the leadership and local chapters of CPSR are out there trying to stir up the public's interest in issues that may seem too arcane and technical to think about, but which can have real-world impacts on all our lives down the road. Their latest project is an Activists' Handbook Version 1.0, outlining to members how they can insert themselves into various decision-making processes. Coralee Whitcomb, president of CPSR, says the group is working to make the Activists' Handbook available to the general public on their Web site.

EFF is much more focused on issues of free speech than CPSR. While the better-known American Civil Liberties Union would have you believe it is the leading defender of online free speech, the fact is that until the Communications Decency Act, the ACLU was absent from cyberspace. In fact, it was the EFF that took the early lead in organizing opposition to the CDA when it was still in Congress. It wasn't until the CDA starting making headlines that the ACLU saw the fund-raising possibilities and got involved.

The EFF, though, was helping to defend free speech during the heyday of computer BBSs. When a Tennessee postal inspector brought obscenity charges against a Milpitas, Calif., couple for running a private pornographic BBS, it was the EFF filing friend of the court briefs. When Zimmerman was first being investigated by federal officials for his free encryption software for home computers, it was the EFF defending him.

Mike Godwin, one of the lawyers who donates so much time to defending free speech on behalf of EFF, has been to cyberspace what Nat Hentoff is to the print world: Activist, spokesperson, proselytizer. He flies all over the country addressing different groups on why free speech is worth defending.

As with CPSR, EFF can get a bit overwrought in its positions. Their opposition to filtering software in public libraries to prevent patrons from viewing pornography online is ludicrous – no one has a constitutional right to view pornography at the public's expense, and certainly parents ought to be able to send their kids to the public library without worrying that Junior will be hitting the Hustler site. A little common sense would go a long way with the EFF.

But in other free speech battles, the EFF is often the only voice of defense. From efforts to ban so-called "hate speech" to schools expelling students for the content of their personal Web pages, it has been the EFF that has taken the lead in ensuring that the 'Net remains a common ground for free expression.

EFF's Web site is full of useful information on getting involved in defending free speech. There are pages dedicated to the Blue Ribbon free speech campaign, the Consortium for Audiovisual Free Expression (CAFE), and background on recent issues regarding free speech online.

Both EFF and CPSR accept memberships, of course, if you find yourself wanting to get more involved; both Web site have secure online transaction pages where you can join up with your credit card.