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Perspective: Don't get mad, get even

CNET's Washington watcher Declan McCullagh says the tech sector can further its interests by learning how other industries reward friends and punish enemies on Capitol Hill.

WASHINGTON -- The National Rifle Association rates politicians on whether they support the Second Amendment.

Emily's List gives campaign cash to pro-choice Democratic women. The Club for Growth supports politicos who pledge to lower taxes and limit government, while aiming to defeat tax-and-spenders.

Is it time for the technology industry to come up with a similar way to reward friends and punish enemies?

There's certainly good reason for it. Over the last two years, U.S. Congress has considered a series of benighted plans to regulate, restrict and otherwise hamstring technology.

Take Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., the powerful chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee who is Hollywood's champion in its legislative assault on Silicon Valley. Hollings is backing the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act--which would implant copy-protection technology in PCs and consumer-electronics devices--and an intrusive bill that would regulate Web sites' data-collection practices.

Hollings is up for re-election in 2004. A well-organized effort to target him for defeat in the primary and general elections could make Hollings and other congressmen think twice before cozying up to Jack Valenti's Motion Picture Association of America and other groups clamoring for more government regulations. It'll remind Hollings of his narrow win in 1992, when he beat Republican Tommy Hartnett by a mere 36,855 votes.

A second strategy to defeat tech foes is to ally with third parties. Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., who proudly co-sponsored an unconstitutional law that restricts sexually explicit information online, won re-election last week by a margin of 15,620 votes.

That's a small enough number to let a third party, such as the Libertarian Party, affect the election by siphoning off votes that would otherwise have gone to Wilson. Remember that about 97,000 Florida voters chose Ralph Nader over Al Gore in 2000, outraging Democrats who claimed the Green Party cost Gore the election.

Over the last two years, U.S. Congress has considered a series of benighted plans to regulate, restrict and otherwise hamstring technology.

Then again, the Libertarian platform is so unabashedly pro-technology and pro-privacy that its candidates might deserve a serious look because of their positions, not their effect as spoilers. The platform calls for repealing the pro-surveillance USA Patriot Act, removing "all trade barriers," and says the Internet and computer networks deserve the "full freedom" of the First Amendment. On privacy, it says: "The individual's right to privacy, property, and right to speak or not to speak should not be infringed by the government."

Ron Crickenberger, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress this year as a Libertarian in tech-heavy northern Virginia, says voters respond well to an aggressively free-market message. "I talk about Hong Kong," Crickenberger says. "Here was a place with very little taxation and regulation, and look at the economic boom that followed."

Bonnie Scott, an activist in the New York State Libertarian Party, says her party's ideas tend to attract geeks. "A libertarian wants to get to the root of the problem and eliminate it by simplifying the system," says Scott, who is a Perl programmer and Unix system administrator. "It's one of the things I was taught in programming class. Parsimonious code is definitely better. That's how a libertarian would look at government: No extra bells and whistles, because you'll just get caught up in them and they'll cause customer-service troubles. Or wars."

Don't get me wrong. In a recent column, I warned that the idea of geeks trying to become lobbyists is problematic. But trying to elect good candidates instead of lobbying bad ones is a strategy with a better chance of being effective. (TechNet runs a political action committee, but it has negligible impact, giving only about $92,000 in the 2002 election cycle.)

Trying to elect good candidates instead of lobbying bad ones is a strategy with a better chance of being effective.

"I think that the tech industry needs two things to be effective: One is to take political giving more seriously, but perhaps more important is to achieve a greater degree of unity," says Jonathan Zuck of the Association for Competitive Technology, a trade association that operates a small political action committee. "I think our industry's Achilles? heel at this point is too much infighting and dissension within our ranks."

Yet another option would be to create a well-researched voter's guide, which dozens of groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, League of Conservation Voters, National Taxpayers Union, and the Christian Coalition already do. The American Open Technology Consortium's "Worst coders in Washington" list, a Wired News ranking, and an Information Technology Industry Council scorecard are good efforts, but they're only first steps.

The 2004 election is less than two years away. Any volunteers?