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Is it time for a GeekPAC?

Geeks are beginning to realize they need to punish the Luddites in Congress who are standing in the way of progress.

WASHINGTON--Geeks are beginning to realize they need to punish the Luddites in Congress who are standing in the way of progress.

In a recent column, I suggested that the technology industry find a way to reward its friends and, more importantly, punish its enemies. Politicians have spent the past few years concocting increasingly dangerous schemes, and targeting them for defeat in the next election is one way to make them abandon their plans.

I didn't know it when I wrote that column, but there's good news to report: Some efforts already are under way.

One plan is to resuscitate the dormant League for Programming Freedom (LPF), which was founded in 1989 to oppose software patents. It's now moribund, but the LPF may find a new life as a political action committee opposing the disturbing expansions of copyright and patent law.

Dean Anderson, who has been president of the LPF since 1993, says he's planning to work with free software maven Richard Stallman to organize a meeting in the next few weeks in the Cambridge, Mass., area. "We're going to get some people together from the old LPF and decide how we want to proceed," Anderson says. "What I'd like to do is get more people together to develop a consensus on what the next mission should be, especially if we're going to re-incorporate (as a PAC)."

In its heyday, the LPF focused on software patents and user interface copyright, including the Lotus v. Borland lawsuit over the design of the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet. Software patents are as problematic for today's programmers as they were a decade ago, but new threats such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) have since emerged.

"These things really harmed and made life difficult for programmers and the software industry," Anderson says. "The DMCA has the potential to do the same thing...I certainly encourage adding that to the LPF charter." Anderson, who runs AV8 Internet, suggests likely contributors to a PAC could be venture capitalists worried about the chilling effect and uncertainty of software patents.

A second project is being undertaken by the Computer and Communications Industry Association, which already has a technology PAC that's been idle. A trade association whose membership includes Sun Microsystems, Oracle, Yahoo, Hitachi and AOL Time Warner, CCIA has been arguing against the steady march of intellectual property laws. CCIA has tentative plans to spend far more money on its PAC during the 2004 election cycle.

In another effort, Qualcomm and Dittus Communications--a public relations shop based here--founded the Republican Technology Council last month. The council's purpose is to play matchmaker between Republican politicians and tech executives by setting up private meetings. No PAC or similar campaign activity is planned.

Jonas Neihardt, Qualcomm's director of government relations and co-creator of the council, says that the tech industry isn't spending enough money to make it possible to punish enemies. "Some of the old economy companies do that and they have big enough PACs and enough political activity to go after incumbents," Neihardt says. "The tech community hasn't been active enough politically on a whole to be that aggressive. In my view, the technology community needs to focus first on helping people who help us. By and large, we're not there yet."

He's right. Take Microsoft, one of the world's richest companies, with a market capitalization of $311 billion. As of Oct. 16, its PAC spent $1,176,926 in the last election cycle, according to records filed with the government.

That's just $232 more than the PAC for--I am not making this up--the Outback Steakhouse restaurant chain spent during the same period.

Don't get me wrong. I'm hardly suggesting that everyone cozy up to Washington's political class. Rather, our goal should be to preserve individual liberty and thwart intrusive regulations, which suggests a policy of limited engagement. And it's true that giving cash to politicians to prevent them from hurting your livelihood comes uncomfortably close to the kind of protection racket run by the Mob.

John Gilmore, a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, puts it more bluntly. "I've had the attitude that giving money to the bastards in Washington who gave us these problems is the wrong approach," Gilmore says. "That seems to be their game: We create problems and then take money from you to solve them."

Geeks who want to start waging electoral warfare should listen to Grover Norquist, one of the Republican Party's most influential insiders and the head of Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist's group famously asks anyone running for elected office to sign a taxpayer pledge promising not to raise taxes.

"One of the most important things the tech industry can do is a rating," Norquist says. "Every politician in this country wants to tell you that he's tech friendly...Pick 10 or 20 issues and give ratings. Then people who say they're tech friendly but they're not--there's a cost to that. You as a tech group don't have to advertise that. The candidate running against that person will promote it. It certainly puts the lie to some people running around who say they're tech friendly and don't have the records to back it up."

But forget PACs. Probably the best model to follow is that adopted by Steve Moore, who runs the Club for Growth, which punishes pro-tax candidates and rewards those who favor lower taxes and limited government. It raised about $9.3 million during the last two-year election cycle, and spent about $7 million to influence races (the rest went to salaries, rent and overhead expenses).

Moore's group is incorporated as a PAC, but to avoid spending limits, it doesn't operate as one. Under federal law, PACs are permitted to spend only $5,000 on each candidate in an election. Instead, Club for Growth targets an important race, asks its members to write checks, then bundles them together and sends them to the candidate.

"The only reason to set up a PAC is to buy influence," Moore says. "It's basically an entry fee to a congressman or a senator's office. What PACs cannot do is influence the outcome of an election -- they're constrained in the amount of money they can give. If your primary goal is to peddle influence, a PAC makes sense. When you want to meet with the head of the science committee or the commerce committee, and you've given them money from your PAC, that's the first thing the scheduler is going to check. But it's not going to influence an election."

Geeks and the tech industry could take a lesson from the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which Fortune magazine ranks as one of the top five most influential lobbying groups in the United States. In a famous 1984 race, AIPAC targeted Sen. Charles Percy, R-Ill., and cost him his re-election bid.

"That was one of their most famous ousters," Moore says. "It scared the bejeezus out of all the other senators. That's the way the game is played. It only takes one scalp on the wall to send a message to the rest. Behave or you'll be the next target. Fear is a powerful motivator in politics."

Take Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., the powerful chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and champion of Hollywood in its political assault on Silicon Valley. Hollings has introduced the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act, which would forcibly implant copy-protection technology in PCs and consumer electronics devices.

He's also up for re-election in 2004. Got your checkbook ready?