April 8, 2002

Linux advocates launch D.C. lobbying effort

- By Grant Gross -
Two veteran Linux advocates are planning, with help from community donations, to send a "dream team" of technology activists to Washington, D.C., to counter the big-budget lobbying efforts of Microsoft and the entertainment industry and to fight legislation that threatens the Open Source and Free Software movements.
Jeff Gerhardt, host of the Linux Show, and Doc Searls, senior editor of Linux Journal, are beginning to solicit donations for a lobbying effort -- representing the Open Source/Free Software communities and the wider technology user community -- to target movers and shakers in Washington. The American Open Technology Consortium would concentrate on fighting legislation such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the proposed Consumer Broadband and Television Promotion Act [formerly the SSSCA] and on offering a counter view to the Bush administration Justice Department "creating an atmosphere and opportunity for Microsoft to walk away" from major antitrust penalties, according to the consortium supporting document.

"What that document can not express is my sense of outrage," Gerhardt says. "We (the collective American public) have been under an onslaught of illegal behaviors by major companies (not just Microsoft) and our political infrastructure selling our technological
future down the proverbial river. I was already mad about the long list of
grievances we all know about, when on the same weekend Tauzin-Dingel passed the house, and I became aware of the full potential impact of [the Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panel webcasting recommendations]. I think the word 'outrage' is half of it, and 'disbelief' that our government was either so clueless, or corrupt, or both;
that caused a point where critical mass was reached."

Searls says he wants the lobbying effort to help politicians recognize that the open systems like the Internet work better than closed systems. The Internet became universal, he says, because nobody owns it, everybody can use it, and anybody can improve it.

"Geeks built the 'Net," Searls says. "Not Disney. Not AOL (they would have stuck with
their own alternative if the Net hadn't become ubiquitous on its
own). Not Microsoft (same thing). Not even Intel, IBM or Sun (which
did *not* 'put the dot in the dot com,' as their advertising
claimed). Geeks did. They did it at government agencies, the
military, universities. Some worked in business, but were not
building the 'Net just to serve business alone."

Needed: $100,000

Gerhardt, Searls and the other regulars on the Linux Show have been talking about launching a political action committee for a few weeks on the show's Tuesday night broadcasts, but the lobbying effort was officially announced last week. The consortium hasn't accepted donations yet, as it explores the political and legal implications of setting up a PAC versus a regular non-profit organization. But Gerhardt says the PAC will need close to $100,000 "to do any effective good at all."

Gerhardt believes by representing the rights of the larger Internet user community, in addition to Open Source and Free Software fans, it's an achievable goal. "We would like to raise $100,000 right away," he says. "I have seen a number of efforts in the Linux and
Open Source Community fall flat on their face, because people are used to
the concept of 'free beer.' But what we as a community have yet to come to
terms with is that freedom has a price. Being citizens of the U.S.A., we
have known this historically in general terms; but as members of a
technology sector, we have never translated that concept to such issues as
'freedom to innovate.' "

Gerhardt's long-term goal is a membership that sustains donations of $250,000 a year, which translates into about 10,000 paying members, if the consortium is funded mostly by individuals. He admits that's an "uphill battle," and he doesn't have a firm goal yet on when the consortium's efforts would get started, other than "as soon as possible."

The initial $100,000 goal "will allow us enough funds to plan a reasonable grass-roots campaign with a chance for a successful result," he says. "Keep in mind we are
battling companies and industry organizations with near limitless funds."

First event: Whistle-stop across America

The consortium's founders are planning the first move of a high-profile bus or train "whistle-stop" campaign taking technology leaders across the country, from San Francisco to D.C. There would be several campaign stops in between, perhaps in home states of key politicians for or against the consortium's goals, and in states still fighting the Microsoft antitrust settlement. The last stop would be in Washington, including a "geek march" on Capitol Hill. Gerhardt says the group has already had some success setting up meetings with politicians.

The trip is "what you might call 'geek dream team meets the peace train,' " Gerhardt says. "It is important that we do this. We can no longer count on anyone but ourselves to bring our message to the powers inside the beltway of D.C."

If the fund-raising campaign is successful, the group would consider hiring a lobbyist, Gerhardt says, but that idea is on the back burner. "I think it is important that the cream of the technology/internet communities directly face the people in
Washington," he says. "I hate to come off like some sort of conspiracy nut, but we are
being confronted from so many sides by a small number of very large and
powerful industry groups, that the future is in doubt. Unchecked from our
present course, the Internet will cease to exist in a few years.

"We -- the combined Linux, GNU, Mac, webcasting, ISP/Internet, Open Source,
Free Speech, and a few other communities -- need to proactively step up. If
we do not do this first, no hired gun will do any good."

Why is it needed?

Gerhardt, speaking on the Linux Show in mid-March, ranted about the DMCA, the Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panel webcasting recommendations, which critics say would drive many small webcasters out of business, and the Tauzin-Dingell Broadband Bill, which he and other critics say would give the Baby Bells control of Internet connections in the United States while shutting out competing ISPs.

"It seems that all the efforts people in the development side of the technology business have taken to try motivate people in the community to write their congressman, whatever we've tried, no matter how many signatures we've gotten on petitions, no matter how many Web sites we put up, it doesn't do any good," he said. "They've ignored us. We haven't gotten a word across to Congress.

"Enough is enough is enough," he added. "It is time for people in the technology community to open up their wallets and donate money to the EFF and fund this political action committee ... We've got to do this or we're going to lose, folks, it's that simple."

Because issues like the DMCA, the Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panel and the former SSSCA are so closely related, Gerhardt believes the consortium can have a broad appeal. "CBDTPA [formerly SSSCA] effects people in the computer and TV set top box industries, as well as creators of Open Source software," he says. "It legislates hardware standards, and could legislate Open Source out of existence. This is bad enough on its
own. Now take that picture in mind, mix in the XBox and WebTV (both
Microsoft products); as the mixture begins to boil, stir in the fact that as
the DOJ is trying to resolve one Microsoft antitrust issue, another part of
our government is creating a new monopoly for Microsoft with CBDTPA."

Other issues the consortium would work on include extending privacy rights to the Internet and First Amendment issues. Asked about the consortium's long-term goals, Gerhardt quotes the Free Software movement's leader Richard Stallman: "Free as in freedom." That freedom, Gerhardt says, includes economic freedom and the freedom of programmers and businesses to innovate, without laws like the DMCA standing in the way.

Among his long-term goals:

  • Establishing a permanent method for technology communities to address Washington.
  • Allowing Open Source development to co-exist with closed source and compete fairly for "mindshare."
  • Keeping the Internet open and allowing new markets and business models to exist online.
  • Allowing independent ISPs to continue to compete with large telephone and cable companies.

Adds Searls: "We also need to throw our weight behind everything substantive that
recognizes the Net as a commons rather than a vast piping system
for digital rights-managed (DRM'd) 'content.' So we would stand
with the EFF against the new [Broadcast Protection Discussion Group] effort to turn digital television into a brain-dead DRM system."

The PAC founders are asking for donations of $25 and up for individuals and $500 for businesses. Corporate members pledging at least $500 earn the right to name a member of the PAC's advisory board. A $2,000 sustaining member also can nominate a member to the voting board of directors.

Pledges will be taken at geekpac@thelinuxshow.com.

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