December 6, 2002

Some thoughts on the future of 'geek lobbying'

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -
This is a cynical but realistic view of the U.S. regulatory and lawmaking process that will make you sad -- and will show you why "Geek Activism" projects must be ongoing efforts if they are going to succeed. I'm sure things are similar in other countries, but I know the U.S. system best so that's the one I'll talk about here.

Compromise is King

The basis of the U.S. political system is compromise. In theory, while solutions to our political problems may leave all parties to them feeling a little upset, no one walks away from the negotiations so angry that they want to start an armed revolution, and the laws and regulations that get put into place are followed by everyone because they are not as bad as they could be if one side or the other had its way.

This "government by compromise" style means the U.S. government often appears indecisive and directionless. Compared to monarchies or dictatorships where one person says, "This is The Law," and can make that decision stick by force of arms, the U.S. government is wishy-washy, especially when it comes to making rules about technology few lawmakers understand.

The squeaky wheel gets the grease

Most U.S. lawmakers and their staffs don't really care about digital rights management or which computer operating systems are used by which government agencies. Why should they? Most of their constituents are interested in issues like abortion rights, international threats, education, and, always above all, economic policies that affect their own incomes and tax payments.

Go to any public space and ask the first 20 people you see about their opinion of the Palladium initiative to embed digital file control into all computer hardware. You will get blank stares. Catch a Member of Congress who is not from a district full of high-tech or enteratainment companies at a "meet the constituents" event, ask about Palladium, DMCA or other "geek" policy issues, and you'll probably get nothing but a vague "We're looking into that" reponse, and other people at the meeting will have no idea what you're talking about.

Policy issues other than a few headline-dominating biggies only become policy issues because someone has made them into issues, and when it comes to tech policy the most likely issue-raisers are companies or industry lobbying groups trying to get laws and regulations made that will serve their own interests. So far, "grass roots" geek activists in the U.S. have been primarily reactive -- that is, trying to keep industry lobbyists from doing too much damage -- rather than proactive -- that is, actively working to change bad patent law and other innovation-hampering government rules. This must change at some point, but the change will be hard and expensive.

Appeal to self-interest

This is where we get cynical. Here you are, the crusading geek activist trying to get lawmakers, committee staff people, and regulation writers at agencies like the FCC, FTC, USPTO, and Library of Congress to do things you believe will benefit the vast majority of individual Americans -- and probably many companies, too. What can you offer them in exchange for seeing things your way and helping you further your cause?

The companies and industry associations on the other side of the issue have the following ammunition:

  • Campaign funds directly available for amenable politicians
  • Ability to sponsor fundraising events for amenable politicians
  • Skilled lobbyists, experienced at making their points in ways non-technical government people easily understand
  • Invitations to many parties and social events government biggies routinely attend
  • Assistance in writing tedious bills and regulations
  • Free lunches/suppers, game tickets, golf and tennis opportunities
  • Free "informative seminars" held in resort locations like Hawaii
  • Both open and "wink wink" offers of lucrative consulting positions later for government employees and elected eofficials who help them today.

This is only a partial list, and it changes constantly. Campaign regulations and government ethics laws are always changing, so lobbyists are always on the lookout for new legal (or at least easily hidden) ways of giving Good Things to government people in return for favors.

No smart lobbyist ever requests a direct legislative result in return for a set amount of money or any other direct promise. That would be unethical and illegal. This is an area where innuendo rules.

What can you offer to counter all this?

To start with, the dictum "all politics is local" applies. Enough irritated geeks in a politician's home district who write, fax, and call can make him or her rethink positions that sounded entirely reasonable when Bigbucks J. Lobbypro brought them up on the 10th hole at the Congressional Country Club last Tuesday.

Note the "in the home district" part. Most elected officials only respond to communications from their constituents, not from people in other areas who can't vote for (or against) them.

You may now ask, "Then how can Disney and other entertainment companies get such a lock on someone like Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, since they are not located there? Why does his staff even read their faxes?"

The cynic's answer is, "Money." I'm sure someone who has been studying the American system in textbooks but has little practical political experience can come up with a more palatable explanation for this hypocrisy, but in my experience, "Money" is usually the true answer.

"Money is the mother's milk of politics" is one of those truisms that is called a truism because it's true. If money given to politicians didn't get results, do you really think all those companies would give so much to so many politicians -- all of whom so vehemently deny that their decisions are affected by campaign contributions?

So just as you, oh geek activist, know you should "fight fire with fire," perhaps you should "fight money with money" when it comes to politics -- in addition to your grassroots, locally-based mail, fax, and phone campaigns, of course.

Finding strange bedfellows with deep pockets

Sooner or later, "we" (whoever "we" are) need to set up a Washington office to further our causes, whatever those causes may be. The person who runs that office needs a sizable expense account and a nice wardrobe, and should have substantial campaign funds available. Ideally, we want this person to be a well-connected insider, perhaps a former Representative or former upper-level committee or agency staff member. Hiring this person and paying his or her "lobbying expenses" and making sure the campaign till is full is not cheap. It'll take thousands upon thousands of $20 or $50 memberships to do it. We will need to find corporate allies.

Not all of the corporate allies we find are going to be to everyone's taste. On some issues, like Internet users' privacy and DRM enforcement, Verizon and other big ISPs may side with freedom-loving geeks, while on other issues they may make people like you and me gnash our teeth in frustration.

Microsoft may be no friend to Linux or the GPL, but when it comes to policies that keep the Internet free and help increase its popularity, Microsoft is on your side. Ditto Intel, because Intel wants to sell lots and lots of microprocessors, and if a lot of consumers start to worry about copy restrictions built into their microprocessors, and decide not to buy new computers because of them, Intel is in trouble.

Making and unmaking alliances as needed is a large part of a pragmatic lobbyist's job. Idealism is wonderful, but our system does encourage compromises and deal-making, and a lobbyist who can't live with that part of the system is less likely to deliver consistent, measurable results than one who understands the practical realities of the U.S. government.

Getting started

Chances are, a professional-level geek lobbying organization will not be started from $10 and $20 donations, but will get its seed money from a single wealthy individual, company or foundation. Most top-end Washington "single issue" lobbying groups and think tanks rely on large grants or endowments, not individual memberships, for their core funding. It is almost always faster, easier, and cheaper to find one donor who can give $1,000,000 than it is to get 100,000 people to give $10 each.

Now all we need to do is locate that million-dollar donor.

Got anyone in mind?

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