|Act Locally to Fight Net Censorship|
|by Rich Burroughs|
If "act locally" becomes the net.activist's meme of choice in late 1996, it will be largely due to the efforts of Jon Lebkowsky, among others.
Lebkowsky, a co-founder and former CEO of FringeWare, now hosts HotWired's Electronic Frontiers Forum Thursdays at 7 PM Pacific time at Club Wired. He's also a founding member of EFF-Austin and is currently vice-president of that organization, in addition to writing his zine, Cyberdawg Barking.
Why is Lebkowsky all riled up? "The Exon bill, from which the CDA evolved, hit me pretty hard," he said. "I realized that repressive political groups were organizing effectively while progressives and civil libertarians were in disarray. I had been throwing all my time into a commercial effort, but I was finished with that project, ready to shift gears. Then HotWired offered me the Electronic Frontiers Forum, and I found myself totally immersed again in cyberactivism."
Anyone who's attended Lebkowsky's Thursday night jams (which have featured such activist luminaries as Mike Godwin, Ann Beeson, and Steve Jackson) has probably heard him grumble about the need for more grass roots action. He urges people to start their own local organizations because, "Only local groups can monitor local politics. Freedom can be threatened as readily on a municipal as on a state or national level, so it's as important to have a network of empowered activists organizing cities as it is to have activists working 'inside the Beltway'."
In fact, at least 16 states have proposed some sort of Net censorship legislation, including California, Washington, New York, Connecticut, and Georgia. National organizations are lucky to have the resources to even track all of the state bills that are being proposed, let alone to combat that legislation on a case-by-case basis. A local group can try to head these threats off at the pass by mobilizing local support and mounting a grass roots opposition. Stanton McCandlish, an Online Activist for EFF and another proponent of local groups, observed that "It matters more to a typical Bostonian that a (hypothetical) EF-Massachusetts is acting on behalf of the [Massachusetts] public on a state or even local issue, than it does that some organization in DC is doing something similar on the national level. It's closer to home."
Local groups can influence national politics, as well, by contacting their Congressional representatives on their home turf. Jonah Seiger, a Policy Analyst for CDT, feels that one of the biggest challenges facing online activists is putting a human face on the Net user. "It's amazing when you think about it that 115,000 people signed the petition for Leahy, [and] the day of protest generated 20,000 to 30,000 phone calls in one day," Seiger said. "But what's missing from that when I talk to members of Congress and their staff, is the sort of image of who these people are. There's this idea that the Internet community, for better or for worse, is either college kids or these freaked-out libertarian hackers with long hair and beards. Those are wonderful people, all of them, but they're not the only part of the Net community."
The answer to this dilemma is making personal contact with your legislators. "Go to your town meetings when your representative is in town talking about the issues," Seiger added. "Go there, introduce yourself, say 'Hi, I'm an avid Internet user and I voted for you in the last election, and I have some concerns about some of the policy choices that Congress has made.' Introduce them to your ISP, introduce them to a web publishing house, introduce them to somebody who's trying to make a living, even if it's just one person, using the Net. Let them see that, in fact, this is a constituency that they can respond to and be rewarded for responding to."
Lebkowsky points out that making those kind of personal connections, in "meatspace," means a lot. "It'll be sometime before the average guy or the average politician comprehends 'virtual life.' My experience tells me that community never quite kicks in so long as it is strictly virtual, it's only when we meet as meat that we connect on all levels," he said.
As for how to start a local organization, Lebkowsky is, "working on a guide for local orgs that I'll distribute freely online, and later I'll beef it up so that it can be published as a book," he said. "Otherwise, folks needing help can email EFF-Austin's directors firstname.lastname@example.org and check out our web page at http://www.eff-austin.org.
Also check web pages for other orgs: http://www.eff.org, http://www.cdt.org, http://www.vtw.org, http://www.epic.org, etc."
Here's some advice to consider when starting your own group (from Lebkowsky and McCandlish):
- Establish an online presence. Find an ISP or other system that will provide a comp account.
- Set up an email list (majordomo, listserv, etc.) for members and interested persons.
- Create a web page and perhaps a gopher. Include a membership form on the web page.
- Recruit members online and in meatspace. Keep dues low.
- Organize your constituency online and offline; keep their loyalty; work them into activity - you want activists, not lurkers.
- Build resources for the public - especially an online library of documents. Give back to the community that supports you in more ways than one.
- Seek those with experience where you need it - communicating online, dealing with policymakers, public relations, fundraising, design and publication, legislative and legal analysis, fiscal management. Proceed to learn these skills internally, as well.
- Get to know the press. Learn to use the traditional media effectively.
- Get to know the police. EFF-Austin has a police liaison (Bruce Sterling). One of his jobs is to ensure that the police know who we are and will call us for consultation.
- Research, research, research. Learn your issues and their legalities like the back of your hand. Become an authoritative voice on the matters that concern your organization.
- Educate legislators about the issues. Educate the press and public as well.
- Take public positions. Craft statements, press releases and action alerts. Keep your constituency and the public updated on hot issues.
- Organize events to highlight the issues.
- Work with, not against, other organizations. Build coalitions, work cooperatively.
- Deal reasonably with criticism.
- Minimize costs.
The original of this article is at www.teleport.com/~richieb/cause/may96/act.html.
Rich Burroughs may be reached at: email@example.com
Jon Lebkowsky may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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