The big players in computer ethics

by Jim Trageser
This article originally ran in ComputorEdge on September 20, 2002.

When you read stories in the paper or watch a report on TV about the latest computer scandal or issue — whether it's filtering software for library Internet terminals, the struggle over e-mail spam, or the latest crackdown on kiddie porn — odds are that the story was triggered by a press conference of press release from one of the many non-profit activist groups dedicated to computer ethics.

The computer activist community can trace its roots to the counter-culture movement of the 1960s. University computer departments created a fertile incubator of idealists who felt that the convergence of computer technology and the hippie ethos — combined with the then-new concept of networking computers — provided a unique opportunity in history to create a new kind of human community.

Lee Felsenstein, who is in the Computer Hall of Fame for his many technological innovations (developing the Osborne and Processor Technology Sol computers, plus the low-cost Pennywhistle modem), was also in on one of the earliest computer activist movements, The Community Memory Project.

This was an effort to develop and install public-access computer network terminals in coffee shops, libraries and other gathering places — back in 1972, when the ARPAnet was still years away from growing into the Internet. If the Community Memory Project is gone, many of the proposals it first put forth still resonate online today.

In the 1980s, computer activists coalesced around two new influential organizations.

In response to President Reagan's proposal for a space-based anti-missile defense system, a group of computer programmers and designers who were philosophically opposed to using computers for military purposes founded Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.

And at around the same time, former Whole Earth Catalog publisher Stewart Brand co-founded The Well, a non-commercial dial-up service created not so much to compete with CompuServe, Prodigy, GEnie and the other online services of the day, but to provide a hippie alternative.

Both still survive today — although CPSR has remained truer to its roots, while The Well has morphed into a kind of online coffee shop, full of the kind of Birkenstock-wearing yuppies with public radio bumper stickers on their gas-guzzling SUVs.

For its part, CPSR is today one of the most influential and involved organizations devoted to exploring the ethics of technology.

Unlike most other computer ethics organizations, CPSR does not limit itself to certain topics. From governing the Internet to protecting privacy to the role of computers in our schools, CPSR is active in trying to help ensure that ethics is at least a consideration in public policy decisions regarding technlogy.

CPSR schedules conferences to discuss technology-related issues, files amicus briefs in lawsuits revolving around these issues, and publishes papers exploring the disputes arising out of the collision between society and computer technology.

Most importantly, CPSR does more than just complain — they propose new solutions for the problems they describe.

Another big player in online ethics also traces its history to the days before the Internet was made public. The Electronic Frontier Foundation () was founded in 1990 in response to police seizures of computers used to run dial-up bulletin board systems.

Since its founding, EFF has focused on issues of civil liberties online — primarily free speech. And where CPSR is rather academic in nature, EFF is more of a street brawler. EFF has been unafraid to provide legal representation to those online denizens facing the power of the government.

Early in its existence, EFF defended folks arrested for having porn on their computers. This wasn't kiddie porn, but your run-of-the-mill naked cheerleader stuff you can buy at most any 7-11. Perhaps not the parson's cup of tea, but legal to own in most jurisdictions.

When a federal postal inspector from Tennessee downloaded nudie pics from a BBS in California, and had the BBS' owners arrested for violating Tennessee obscenity laws, EFF sprang into action.

They've been there ever since, and today their Web site lists several important lawsuits EFF is handling (including its fight against Hollywood efforts to end the constitutionally protected right to back up movies you buy). There are also dozens of campaigns on their site to try to bring about change through organizing voters.

The rise of computer technology has also raised many concerns about protecting our privacy. The Electronic Privacy Information Center ( is one of the leading organizations dedicated to fighting to preserve our digital.

Interestingly, while CPSR and EFF were both founded by old-school computer activists who had helped launch the age of the personal computer, EPIC is perhaps more representative of today's kind of computer activist — someone who isn't necessarily a geek. CPSR and EFF's founders were hackers in the old sense of the word, folks who enjoyed tinkering and playing with computers. EPIC's staff are more likely to be primarily interested in the policy issues swirling around the 'Net, not the technology behind it.

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse isn't necessarily focused on computer issues, but the obvious and enlarging overlap between privacy concerns and computer technology has provided many instances of common cause between PRC and the other groups interested in computer ethics.

The Internet Society ( focuses on issues of public access and public service. It's not quite as visible in the media as some of the others above, but is perhaps more influential on some issues — particularly those relating to new technological standards for the 'Net.

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