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Linux geeks play Hollywood politics

A grassroots campaign to stop the entertainment industry's crackdown on technology that allows illegal copying has developers looking to arm themselves with tech stars and big bucks.

Spooked by Hollywood-backed legislation that seeks to regulate technology, Linux geeks plan to launch a political-action committee that fights back.

Jeff Gerhardt, host of "The Linux Show," and Doc Searls, senior editor of the Linux Journal, are forming a lobbying group called GeekPAC that would try to convince lawmakers to consider developers when they draft laws concerning technology.

The goal is to ensure that legislative attempts to protect the interests of companies such as Walt Disney and the Baby Bells don't stifle technological development.

"We have witnessed a slow and steady erosion of the ability of Internet and IT developers to freely develop innovative products," states a draft document proposing the formation of GeekPAC.

In recent years, attempts to crack down on illegal copying by outlawing some technologies have outraged developers, but few technologists have had the time or political wherewithal to challenge proposed legislation. The most high-profile law so far has been the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which has landed one developer in jail and led to countless threats of enforcement against other programmers.

Most recently, Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, D-S.C., introduced legislation that would require government-mandated copy-protection technology in consumer devices. The bill, a Hollywood-sponsored attempt to thwart piracy, has alarmed many technology companies and executives, who are rushing to stop it.

Earlier this week, PC maker Gateway began airing commercials protesting the bill. And a few weeks ago a bevy of high-profile Silicon Valley executives and venture capitalists launched DigitalConsumer.org, a group designed to represent consumers' interests in the battle between Hollywood and technology companies.

What's more, several tech executives, including Intel Chief Executive Andy Grove and DigitalConsumer.org head and Excite founder Joe Kraus, have testified before Congress, urging lawmakers to steer clear of new laws that would insert government-authorized technology in upcoming products.

Now Linux enthusiasts--long known for their grassroots marches and colorful demonstrations against corporate entities including Microsoft--are entering the fray.

The backers of GeekPAC say simply protesting efforts to regulate technology won't work. They're calling on developers and tech supporters to open their wallets to fight the colossal lobbying attempts of companies such as Disney.

"It has become apparent...regardless of the efforts that people in the various and diverse technology communities have attempted to use to influence the outcome of political events, that the real impact that the mixed group of communities has exerted has been minimal, and that those efforts have failed," the GeekPAC document states.

The tension between Silicon Valley and Hollywood stems from new technology that makes it easier than ever to make and distribute perfect copies of digital material, products ranging from the Napster network to the Rio player, both of which have been targets of entertainment industry lawsuits.

The entertainment industry has argued (successfully in the case of Napster) that such products promote copyright infringement. However, GeekPAC founders say legislative crackdowns are interfering with technology.

"The greater evil is that these oppressive regulations go too far and generally stifle the development of new, better technologies in an effort to preserve old technologies and business models," the GeekPAC proposal said.

GeekPAC founders hope to assemble an "all-star" team of technology experts to lead their charge, and--proving that they're getting into the politico spirit--plan to sponsor a "whistle-stop campaign" to educate people about their cause.

It wouldn't be the first time technology advocates have tested political waters inside the beltway, but it may be the most grassroots effort so far.

A few years ago venture capitalists including Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner John Doerr formed TechNet in response to a California initiative to make shareholders' lawsuits easier to file. The group has since taken up issues such as improving education and spurring broadband adoption.

And back when tech stocks were flying high, some young Silicon Valley bigwigs launched Pac.com, a Democratic lobbying group that accepts stock donations.