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Geeks in government: A good idea?

News.com Washington watcher Declan McCullagh says political stirrings among technologists may translate into activism after Congress returns from August vacation. That prospect is receiving mixed reviews.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
4 min read
WASHINGTON--There's a lot for a politically aware geek to be alarmed about nowadays.

Big companies are wielding copyright threats to stifle legitimate security research. Hollywood is itching to hack your PC. Your privacy is vanishing as fast as Al Gore's 2004 presidential hopes. And the merry band of technophobes in Congress is just getting started.

Too often, though, programmers, system administrators and other IT pros become understandably outraged by the latest attempts to restrict technology--and react by doing precisely the wrong thing. They set up irate Web sites, launch online petition drives and tell all their friends to write to their congressional representatives.

Here's the bitter truth: These efforts are mostly a waste of time. Sure, they may make you feel better, but they're not the way to win.

Take the widely reviled Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Even though Slashdotters have spent years buzzing around in circles over DMCA lawsuits brought by the Justice Department against Dmitry Sklyarov, and the big movie studios against 2600 magazine, Congress simply doesn't care.

Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on intellectual property, says the law is "performing the way we hoped." No bill has been introduced in Congress to rescind the DMCA for one simple reason: Official Washington loves the law precisely as much as hackers and programmers despise it. Some of Washington's most powerful insiders even gathered in May to toast the DMCA with glasses of champagne.

Washington's political class is used to ignoring frenzied yowls from far more organized and well-funded groups than "geektivists" can hope to emulate anytime soon.
Things aren't getting better. The House of Representatives voted 385-3 last month to approve life prison sentences for malicious computer hackers. The Senate approved the USA Patriot Act, which expanded police ability to perform Internet surveillance without a court order, by a 98-1 vote last fall.

Trust me, a few--even a few thousand--peeved e-mail messages won't change vote totals that lopsided. (Did you know the Senate approved the DMCA unanimously?) Washington's political class is used to ignoring frenzied yowls from far more organized and well-funded groups than "geektivists" can hope to emulate anytime soon.

Instead, technologists should be doing what comes naturally: inventing technology that outpaces the law and could even make new laws irrelevant.

"They're much better off doing what they do best, writing code," says Sonia Arrison of the Pacific Research Institute, a free-market think tank in San Francisco. "That's where their competitive advantage lies."

Put another way, who made a bigger difference: Yet another letter-scribbling activist or Phil Zimmermann, who wrote the Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encryption software? How about Shawn Fanning, the man who created Napster? Or the veterans of the Internet Engineering Task Force, which oversees the fundamental protocols of the Internet?

"They're much better off doing what they do best, writing code."
--Sonia Arrison, Pacific Research Institute
It's true that such an approach isn't for everyone. Tech companies, of course, need to take a defensive stance. "There's a difference between geeks and the technology industry," Arrison says. "I wouldn't say it's wise for the technology industry to ignore government. But individual tech people are probably better off spending their energy writing code than being part of the political process."

Adam Back, an encryption researcher living in Canada, says that he tries to ignore day-to-day developments in the news. "What's the point?" Back asks. "You know whatever they are working on will be pretty much exclusively damaging to Net freedoms and personal liberty. New laws are almost exclusively damaging to personal freedoms these days."

"By participating in the lobby process, you're effectively giving money to the political system," Back says. "It's effectively a favor-trading system where the politician wins and the geek loses...You're better of spending time writing code and influencing Internet protocols to work towards making the politicians irrelevant in the future."

That's the motto of the Cypherpunks, a group of programmers-turned-activists who first met in Silicon Valley a decade ago and graced the second cover of Wired magazine. They recognized that technology is a more effective tool than the political process to stop governments from overreaching. (An example: Unlike Supreme Court justices who may change their views on privacy, the algorithms embedded in encryption software won't stop working because of political pressure.)

Lance Cottrell is a former Cypherpunk who founded Anonymizer.com, a San Diego company that announced an improved fee-based anonymous browsing service last week.

"I'm of two minds," Cottrell says. "On one hand, I think it's important that the (technologist) perspective be aired. But I think that rather few geeks are temperamentally suited for lobbying. I think there's a cultural tendency toward bluntness and directness, which is not the bread and butter of politics."

Before starting his company, Cottrell wrote the free mixmaster software that allows people to send e-mail anonymously." People can sit around saying, 'Is it a good idea to have anonymity or not?'" Cottrell said. "But if you actually implement it, you can say, 'How do you want to deal with this reality?' It's not that my writing the code created the reality. The possibility was always there. But my writing the code made it impossible to ignore."