Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?

Net lobbyists reshuffle

While Congress is away, tech-savvy political forces are forming new alliances.

3 min read
While Congress breaks for the holidays, tech-savvy political forces are forming new alliances and linking up to make Net issues just as well-known on Capitol Hill as their higher-profile counterparts.

Major signs of the high-tech political surge came this week when two online activists left their nonprofit posts to start a Washington-based Internet campaign consulting company, and a pair of online industry trade groups merged.

Jonah Seiger, who was the Center for Democracy and Technology's (CDT) communications director, and Shabbir Safdar, former director of the public interest group Voters Telecommunications Watch, said Tuesday that in January they will launch a company called Mindshare Internet Campaigns. The firm will use the Net to mobilize voters and raise awareness about policy issues for its clients, who will include trade groups, nonprofit organizations, and political candidates.

On Wednesday, the Association for Online Professionals (AOP) said it will merge with the Interactive Services Association (ISA), whose members include giants Microsoft, AT&T, and America Online. The combined group will charge up efforts to safeguard the Net industry from new taxes, as well as fueling the debate over how the domain name system should be transferred from government control to the private sector. For example, the group will discuss both issues next week with Ira Magaziner, President Clinton's senior advisor on Net issues.

The high-tech industry has been reluctant to engage in the political process, and paid the price when policies were passed that may have negatively impacted the industry, such as the Communications Decency Act. (See related story)

Seiger and Safdar were part of the movement to get companies that belong to groups such as the AOP and ISA to wake up to the realities of federal laws like the CDA--which swiftly passed in 1996, making it a felony to send or show "indecent" material to minors over the Net. Parts of it were struck down by the Supreme Court in June because it was too broad and could have criminalized simply posting Web pages about safe sex, art, or medical issues, for example.

Both Seiger and Safdar organized Netizens to fight the CDA as well as federal export limits on strong encryption. Their past tactics include getting Webmasters to blacken out thousands of sites and gathering online 115,000 signatures in protest of the CDA. They also founded Democracy.net, a nonprofit organization that hosts live Net broadcasts of congressional hearings and other policy-shaping events.

No doubt their efforts helped in the demise of the CDA. "Jonah played a crucial role in developing CDT's pioneering use of the Net as a means of grassroots organizing and public education," said Jerry Berman, executive director of the CDT, which helped organize one of the plaintiff groups that challenged the CDA.

Mindshare will target Net users, but it won't stick solely to high-tech issues.

"Our hope is that we can continue to foster the development of the Net as a platform for democracy, while helping a new range of voices use the Net to advance public policy objectives," Seiger said today. "Internet users form their own demographic. They don't just care about Internet issues. This constituency is growing and developing, and candidates should pay attention."

The CDA experience is also what led the 16-year-old ISA to rethink its role on the Hill.

"The CDA pointed out the necessity for a clear and decisive voice on Internet and online issues. The ISA is hoping that over the next six months we can garner industry support in making this association the leading voice on those issues," said Brian O'Shaughnessy, director of public policy for the ISA.

The ISA hopes joining up with AOP will expand the political influence of both groups' members. For example, AOP has vigorously lobbied in Congress on behalf of ISPs that have been targeted by certain criminal legislation as being responsible for their customers' criminal activity.

"An underlying weakness of the high-tech industry is that it has been slow to mobilize," O'Shaughnessy added. "There has been a fear that if you participate in the political process that you will turn Congress's eyes on you for more regulation--that is untrue. We need to be involved in the political process in Washington, the state capitals, and internationally."