CPSR Conference Wrap-up

by Andy Oram

Despite the supercharged image conveyed by its title, "Communications Unleashed" was a carefully planned and highly informative conference presented by the Washington D.C. chapter of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) on October 19 and 20, 1996. Topics included a telecommunications update, tips on how to bring public-interest views to the attention of the public, current issues in Internet regulation (which some people call an oxymoron--but yes, it does go on), news about privacy and free speech issues, and an expose on the use of computers for elections.

Among the better-known speakers were Ann Beeson (who led the ACLU lawsuit that overturned the Communications Decency Act), Anthony Rutkowski (a long-time figure in Internet policy), consumer advocated Jamie Love, and ACM Computer Risks forum moderator Peter G. Neumann.

CPSR is a grassroots organization of about 1500 computer professionals and others with related interests. We have been educating people and advising legislators and policy-makers for 11 years on ways to use computers to benefit society. We have opposed Star Wars, tried to protect privacy rights, promoted worker involvement in the deployment of new technologies, supported community networks, and lobbied for universal access and better competition in telecom.

I'll summarize the conference here in order to share the latest news, and maybe stimulate you to join us the next time CPSR holds its annual meeting. Everything here is just my personal impression, of course.

General Events

Nathaniel Borenstein presented the annual Norbert Wiener award to Phil Zimmermann. A hero to many around the world, Phil created and freely distributed a cryptography program called Pretty Good Privacy (PGP). It lets people encrypt mail messages and other data so that no one but friends with keys can read them. PGP has been credited with protecting human-rights organizations, among other politically sensitive correspondents. But for several years, until a January 8, 1996, Phil was threatened with prosecution by the U.S. government because someone posted PGP to Internet sites outside the country. Now he is out of danger, and has started his own company to promote his software. He must have had pretty good feelings about the Wiener award, because he renewed his CPSR membership that evening.

I also picked up a powerful quote from Ann Beeson, which is now on the CPSR Cyber Rights Web site:

The most important civil liberties issue facing us today is getting citizens of all races, classes, and creeds connected to the Internet. Our fight for free speech and privacy rights will remain a hollow victory if cyberspace is just a bunch of white folks.
Ann Beeson
Staff Counsel, American Civil Liberties Union
Counsel for Plaintiffs in ACLU v. Reno (case striking down the Communications Decency Act)

The Communications Tsunami

This was the first workshop. Speakers noted that the biggest decisions will now be in the states, where consumers and public-interest activists have to keep close tabs on their regulatory agencies so that the local phone companies are really forced to open up to competition. (They're getting into everybody else's business, so we'll just be handing them billions of dollars if we don't let other companies get into their business.) An interesting disagreement came up between telecomm consultant Brian Moir and Jamie Love. Muir complained that universal-service provisions for schools, libraries, and health providers would raise costs for everybody else. Love pointed out that a reasonably small tax of 1% on all telephone use would yield a handsome 1.6 billion dollars for the schools et al.

Both of these speakers agreed that the age-old way of keeping local costs low (having consumers pay the local companies about six cents per minute on long-distance calls--this appears on the phone bill as "access charges") ought to disappear now. It's serving mainly to keep phone companies from finding more efficient ways to do long-distance and lower costs--why scrounge to save half a cent per minute when the six-cent tax will stay keep costs high?

Now that the states are responsible for competition in the local market (interconnection), it could come to pass very soon in the more advanced states where regulators are savvy, but take 10 or 20 years in other states.

John Curran of BBN Planet was also on the panel, and spoke knowledgeably about the direction that Internet Service Providers are taking. Interestingly, he took middle-of-the-road positions on whether the Internet should be regulated in some way (to support universal service, for instance) and whether a tax should be imposed on its use.

It was a fast-moving talk, and a lot of people in the audience missed some of the acronyms and references, but we definitely knew more about this month's communication issues at the end.

Toolkits for Activists

This panel tried to galvanize everyone to action. Andrew Jay Schwartman of the Media Access Project gave some solid, old-fashioned advice: don't rely on being right, show the legislators why they should care (usually because you can threaten to raise the public against them), and so on. Audrie Krause of NetAction (former Executive Director of CPSR) continued the tutorial by telling us how to deal with reporters (always contact them whenever they touch your issues--either to praise them or to complain--and actually visit the editors). She talked about all kinds of allies we could find--labor organizations, consumer groups, PIRGs, and others. Finally, she encouraged us to volunteer at the level of direct action to help have-nots and non-profits.

Jean Ann Fox of the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council let us know who we can generally work with to improve regulations in states (the Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, the Attorney General's consumer representative). She said that consumer groups like hers were usually restricted to reacting after they find out that a regulation is bad for consumers--perhaps a group like CPSR can help them anticipate bad consequences.

Finally, Coralee Whitcomb, who started the Virtually Wired center for teaching have-nots, picked up on the direct-action theme by advocating computer centers that the public can use. She also subjected NetDay hype to much-needed scrutiny and wondered aloud what would happen the day after NetDay, when teachers around the country with no computer training turn on their systems and find that Netscape freezes up. Always the activist, Coralee urged us to volunteer in local schools and provide this missing training.

The Internet: Commercialization, Globalization and Governance

This forum began with an overview of Internet organizations and issues by Anthony Rutkowski. Then we heard from Elliot Maxwell of the FCC. One would expect a party line from an FCC official, but instead we got a highly personal (and well-informed) impression of issues facing the Internet. What should happen when the Internet is used for financial transactions that are normally taxed? Should we let it become a duty-free zone? How do we deal with content issues, when each country has a different notion of what is pornography, seditious material, or unacceptable advertising? Maxwell could not offer answers (particularly since he was not speaking for the FCC) but he added considerably to our store of questions. He did promise that the FCC would start the process of looking at access charges (see above) in November and come to a decision in the Spring, and that they would soon tell people how to file comments electronically.

Jamie Love returned to the podium and picked up the question of using the Internet for financial activities. All sorts of things are regulated in the U.S., but can now be done "outside" the country via the Internet. This may be a boon to consumers, or may lead to all kinds of fraud. He also lauded the FCC for trying to fix the access charge system before imposing it on the Internet. In contrast, Japan and some European countries currently levy a per-minute charge for local phone calls (although Japan has removed the charge for night calling) which they realize now is inhibiting people from using the Internet.

Love warned us against a current trend by companies to bypass public scrutiny of the law-making process by going international bodies, a theme that re-emerged later in the day. Many international organizations have been set up in recent years (by NAFTA, GATT, G7, the European Community, and so on) that draw their rule-making bodies mostly from people sympathetic to large businesses. These businesses, after getting approval for the policies and regulations that they want, contact the traditional legislatures in each country and pressure them to ratify these "international standards." Love started an interesting discussion about the new Internet Law & Policy Forum, which will try to set international policies for the Internet--currently, their funding comes from companies with a stake in the results, but they seem to be honestly trying to draw in all sectors of stakeholders.

Information Rights

This panel covered a lot of interrelated issues. Current government assaults on privacy are so numerous--ranging from the Administration's latest Clipper encryption proposal to the counter-terrorism bill and beyond--that moderator David Banisar didn't have time even to list them all. Attorney Christine Mailloux (formerly of Privacy Rights Clearinghouse) gave an overview of privacy's importance and how we should approach legislators. Ann Beeson celebrated the overturning of the CDA, but warned us about future attempts to control free speech--bills to come in Congress, and CDA clones in state legislatures, which the ACLU is fighting. She also said that acceptable use policies in colleges often infringe of freedom of speech and privacy.

Law professor James Boyle offered a lively talk about the Administration's infamous "White Paper" on intellectual property, and the laws that have been proposed to implement it. Such laws would hold back technical innovation, because almost anything you do online could conceivably be used to make an illegal copy of something! Furthermore, they would act like the CDA in forcing administrators of Web sites and newsgroups to monitor all content.

Materials are available about this topic online, notably a letter from Boyle. While the law based on the White Paper did not pass, large copyright holders are working through international bodies in the manner described earlier, a process some call "international policy laundering." One initiative, even more harmful to information flow than overly strong copyright laws, is "database protection," which could make it impossible to use any fact or idea that you obtain from any online source.

Computers and Elections: Risks, Reliability and Reform

The last panel of the day was on a narrower topic than the others--but a critical one: the risks of using computers to tabulate votes. Eva Waskell, Rebecca Mercuri, David Burnham, Douglas A. Kellner, and Peter G. Neumann detailed the weak points in the election process and the chances to create fraud. It is mathematically impossible, according to Professor Mercuri, to guarantee that votes are counted properly while maintaining voter anonymity. All technologies for counting votes are susceptible to tampering, but computers make it far easier than the others for someone who knows the software to skew a whole election with a few settings.

On Sunday, workshops were held on civic networking, grass-roots activism, use of media, and Internet-related law. Since they were open discussions, summarizing them is too difficult for me to attempt here. All in all, the CPSR D.C. chapter deserves a lot of thanks and credit for pulling the conference together. The members of the hard-working planning committee are David Banisar, Don Blumenthal, Lyndell Core, William Drake, Sarah Elkins, Paul Hyland, Craig Johnson, Kathryn Kleinman, Willie Schatz, Chuck Stern, and Eva Waskell.

Written by Andy Oram, editor at O'Reilly & Associates and moderator of the CPSR Cyber Rights mailing list.