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User-Modifiable Politics

Ren Bucholz

Issue #135, July 2005

This information freedom group helped elect five of the six candidates it supported. Here's how you can help get Congress interested in users' media rights.

Balance is the foundation of American copyright and patent law, but you wouldn't know from looking at its current trajectory. For the last 100 years, protections for rights-holders have expanded steadily, usually at the expense of users' rights. Laws such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) allow programmers to be arrested for writing the wrong code. Other countries have issued travel advisories to their programmers—and half-serious invitations to ours—because American copyright and patent laws have made coding hazardous. Even worse, the US actively is exporting these policies by way of free trade agreements and pressuring countries such as Brazil that embrace free software. How did our information policy become so one-sided? More importantly, what can we do to fix it?

Part of the answer lies in connecting the “free culture” movement—including free/open-source software advocates and copyright reformers—to traditional politics. In an effort to establish those links, David Alpert and I founded IPac, a nonpartisan political action committee that promotes the public's interest regarding information policy issues. We all are volunteers, and we have taken a broad, transparent approach to politics, relying on the “bundling” of many small donations and blogging our interactions with candidates. In the last federal election, five of IPac's six candidates won their races.

IPac is necessary because traditional programmers' rights groups cannot deal directly with the electoral process. Existing organizations already take this community's message to the US Congress in the form of lobbying and activism, but there still is a huge gap in two important areas: money and votes. Tax-exempt charities such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (disclaimer: I work there too), Public Knowledge and the Free Software Foundation do great work, but they are barred by campaign finance laws from participating in elections. Because IPac is not tax-exempt, we can buy advertising, make campaign contributions and mobilize voters to influence elections directly.

This kind of engagement is vital, because currently the public interest simply does not figure into the legislative calculus of setting information policy. In fact, most of the last decade's copyright and patent legislation, including the DMCA, was considered so non-controversial that it was passed by voice vote, a procedure reserved for bills without real opposition.

Meanwhile, industries that want stronger restrictions have been supporting legislators generously. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the television, movie and music industries gave almost $19 million to legislators during the last fiscal year. That's a lot of cash, but we don't have to match it in order to make an impact. The conventional wisdom in Washington DC is that a candidate's stance on copyright reform has no bearing on how many votes he or she receives on election day. Most congressmen don't think that these issues are contentious, so they don't think about them at all. IPac intends to change this by associating political costs and benefits with taking a strong stance on information policy. In many instances, a handful of sympathetic legislators can derail a harmful bill, so even a relatively small number of allies would constitute a huge change in the policy landscape.

It is also worth mentioning that Hollywood's $19 million is spread thin. On average, the representatives supported by the content industry received only $15,000 during the last election. If your area's open-source users' groups passed the hat at their meetings, we almost could start “Bearded Sysadmins for Truth” and tackle a local campaign head-on. If a small fraction of those meeting attendees visited their representatives in person to talk about the importance of free software and copyright balance, Hollywood would start to get nervous.

For the few legislators who already advocate balanced policy, this kind of interaction can reinforce their position and help them stay in office. For others, seeing constituent engagement—and donations—can encourage them to reexamine their policy choices. When we visited Rep. Rick Boucher, an IPac 2004 candidate, earlier this year, he argued that much of Congress simply is waiting to be convinced that these issues matter to the public. The public that I belong to cares deeply about topics such as the right to program, patent reform and balanced copyright. IPac can help amplify our voice.

IPac, like open-source development, works best when an engaged community contributes resources to achieve a common goal. The first real test of this experiment in user-modifiable politics will be the 2006 midterm election. We already are researching candidates to support, and eventually we will start the process of putting them in office. If enough of us move, I have no doubt that the balance will start to shift in our favor.

Resources for this article: /article/8270.

Ren Bucholz leads a double life as the co-founder of IPac and the Activism Coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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