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Bring in the geeks

CNET's Washington watcher Declan McCullagh tells a tale of a band of ticked-off technophiles, who, with training, become a corps of effective political activists.

WASHINGTON--Gigi Sohn hopes that geeks have become so enraged by recent anti-piracy schemes that they'll finally want to fight back.

The 40-year old lawyer, head of the Public Knowledge nonprofit group here, plans to recruit a ragtag band of technophiles and train them to become a corps of effective political activists on the Internet front.

To Sohn, this means seizing on widespread discontent created by the attempts of Hollywood and the music labels to curtail file-swapping networks while promoting sweeping new anti-copying laws and standards.

E-mail campaigns are easily ignored, and transforming online ire into effective political action is hardly a trivial task.
Geek armies have always been eager to vent in online forums and clog the e-mail inboxes of errant congressional types. As far back as 1995, over 50,000 peeved Netizens signed an electronic petition slamming the Clinton administration's privacy-invasive Clipper Chip.

But e-mail campaigns are easily ignored, and transforming online ire into effective political action is hardly a trivial task. It means convincing apolitical geeks to register to vote, contact their members of Congress when needed, and, perhaps on occasion, even rally in the streets. That's a sentiment that flared, briefly, when geektivists around the world held public protests to show their support for a Russian programmer prosecuted under the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

"We want to build a database in the first six months of 100,000 people," Sohn said in an interview. "That's a very, very high goal, but that is our plan."

When a key vote on Capitol Hill is looming, the plan is that Public Knowledge can activate its network of activists who will lobby their own members of Congress.

Such a movement may be needed soon. Senate Commerce Chairman Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., is championing a plan to implant copy-protection technology in PCs and consumer electronics devices, while Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., has promised a similar proposal in the House.

We want to build a database in the first six months of 100,000 people. That's a very, very high goal, but that is our plan.
-- Gigi Sohn
Earlier this month, record labels hinted they might broaden their legal fusillade to encompass lawsuits against individuals, while an ongoing effort in the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group hopes to develop anti-copying standards for digital television.

Sohn's plan, which she admits won't be ready until another attorney is hired next month, includes reaching out to more traditional groups such as librarians, artists, and educators.

"We are going to go into targeted communities," she says. "We've already done so with the arts community. We're going to do that with open source."

Red Hat's Center for the Public Domain donated $400,000 to create Public Knowledge. Sohn says she's raised an additional $700,000 so far, including a $500,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

Public Knowledge, which is less than a year old, inhabits a unique niche in the nonprofit ecosystem. It doesn't file lawsuits like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, nor is it lobbying on a range of topics, like the Center for Democracy and Technology and American Civil Liberties Union do.

Instead, it's focused on one thing: intellectual property topics inside the Beltway. "We're playing an entirely inside Washington game," Sohn says.

While hardly as libertarian as the Cato Institute or the Competitive Enterprise Institute, EFF typically doesn't applaud government regulation of technology. But Sohn, who previously worked at the liberal Ford Foundation and the left-leaning Media Access Project, is decidedly not laissez-faire.

"EFF cannot support a compulsory license (for content), because it's government-legislated," Sohn says. "If there was a good proposal for a compulsory license, we'd support it. I'd never say there shouldn't be any government action in this area. If it's pro-democracy, pro-consumer, I'm there."

Vote no, please: Count Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., as one politico who's hardly impressed by a draft bill that would help Webcasters but curtail fair-use rights.

Reps. Howard Coble, R-N.C., and Howard Berman, D-Calif., wrote the double-edged legislation in consultation with the Library of Congress' Copyright Office and appear likely to introduce it this month. Coble and Berman were polling their colleagues on a House Judiciary subcommittee to find out if there was support for the legislation.

In a rejoinder written with Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, Boucher sent a follow up letter to the subcommittee, concluding the draft bill "would retard rather than advance the development of the digital music marketplace."

The two-page letter viewed by CNET says the proposal does not correctly follow the Library of Congress' suggestions made in report last August and should be viewed "cautiously" by the panel.

"We will not be signing onto this version of the bill as original cosponsors," Boucher and Cannon wrote. "But we remain willing to work with all members of the subcommittee to craft a bill that actually implements the many suggestions made by the (Library of Congress) and that would help develop the online music market with due consideration of the interests of all affected parties, including consumers."

Senator spam: Steve Biener is testing a still-rare political tactic: Spamming for elected office. Biener, a Democrat, is running for Congress in Delaware. And he's the unapologetic author of thousands of unsolicited vote-for-me messages.

Currently there's no federal law limiting spam, and, since politicians tend to exempt themselves, the few state laws that exist apply only to commercial solicitations.

When a network administrator at one university threatened to block all of Biener's spamgrams, reported, the politico fired off a nastygram warning the administrator against trying "to act as a censor for the entire college community."

Politicians are tempted to spam, says founder Lawrence Kestenbaum, because an opt-in audience is never enough.

Kestenbaum, a county commissioner in Michigan, says spam is a bad idea--but admits it's a temptation. "A political campaign has to communicate effectively to people who might not choose to hear," he says. "Radio and television ads are decreasingly cost-effective for this because political ads, if not repeated at saturation levels, are lost in the noise and TV and Internet radio have shattered the audience into hundreds of specialized pieces."

In February, Bill Jones, a candidate for governor of California, was also caught spamming.

This week:

On Wednesday, the Commerce Department will host its first roundtable on online piracy and digital rights management. Everyone you might expect to be there is showing up: Jack Valenti from the Motion Picture Association of America, Disney lobbyist Preston Padden, Mitch Glazier from the Recording Industry Association of America, plus representatives from Intel, IBM, and Microsoft. So far, the Bush administration has stayed reasonably neutral in the debate over digital rights management, at times voicing mild skepticism toward new government regulations... On Monday, Larry Mefford, the assistant director of the FBI's cyber division, will speak at Oracle's campus in Reston, Va.... Fed chairman Alan Greenspan will deliver his semi-annual report to Congress on Tuesday at 10 a.m. EDT... That afternoon, a Senate Judiciary subcommittee will hold a hearing to examine the FBI's computer hardware woes.