A long, long time ago, you asked lobbyist Morgan Reed questions about lobbying, undue industry influence on United States laws as they apply to the tech sector, the future of internet taxation, and more. Reed, in the meantime, has switched jobs: he's now working for the Association for Competitive Technology (as he candidly and lightheartedly acknowledges, "the enemy" to many Slashdot readers, since they lobby for large software corporations, notably Microsoft), and is finally free to answer your questions. Read on for about as inside a viewpoint as you can find on how you can affect your elected representatives, from someone whose job is to do just that. Update: 08/01 19:24 GMT by M : That's Morgan Reed, not Reed Morgan. We suck.
If you could give one piece of advice to this group, what would it be?
Morgan Reed: An opening note about /. And Washington:
Many of the posts here throw out statements like "Washington is bought"; and it reminds me how little slashdot readers understand about the U.S. government.
People tend to avoid and denigrate subjects they don't fully understand or feel comfortable with. I am certain every reader can think back to an example of having a non-tech person make a disparaging, off-the-cuff comment about something of which they clearly don't grasp. Quotes like "empty suits" and "crooks" signify a response steeped in discomfort due to lack of knowledge.
Most Slashdot readers prize themselves on being knowledgeable, especially about tech issues. Many readers depend on knowledge for their income. Yet on issues involving the government, these same "knowledge workers" treat politics like the technophobes treat computers.
Fortunately or unfortunately, (and I believe fortunately) the US allows all people (over the age of 18), even those who aren't paying attention, to vote.
I would suggest that before any reader makes a blanket statement about either party or any bill or any political issue, that you take the time to think "how much do I really know about this bill?" Am I reading the full text, or am I being spun?
Be aware that much of what you read on the editorial page of the newspaper, or what you hear on talk radio, is spin. Read the byline of the author carefully (also understand in many cases he/she is not really the author, just a respected person whose name is being used to promote a position).
Finally, imagine that the people making the decisions are overworked folks getting massive quantities of information and trying to adequately represent the voters who put them in office.
I can tell you from here on the inside, I have rarely met any Member of Congress, of EITHER party, that was really a bad person. Members are all just trying to represent the voters and win re-election.
Your JOB as a US citizen is to select a representative who will adequately represent your views. It is essential that you not turn off from politics. Instead, take the time to embrace it for a few weeks, learn what you can, then check your gut. Don't be the kind of person you hate to meet who attacks your work, or calls it trivial, because they don't understand it, and are slightly fearful that they will look ignorant. Is it really too much to ask?
Corruption of democracy
As is widely known (and apparently accepted), corporations buy off legislators in the USA through 'campaign contributions' or 'soft money' or various other apparently legal means.
There are also many commercial firms of "lobbyists", who are openly making money from influencing law making. (I must admit that I am unsure of the detail of how this works, whether cash is involved, or of it's legality.)
It seems to me that this is simply organized corruption. We see the results every day in the DMCA and similar broken laws. In your opinion, is this really democracy? At what point should a nominally democratic system be seen as a facade?
(DISCLAIMER: I am a defendant in the California deCSS case.)
What's your opinion of organizations providing funds to political campaigns in exchange for laws/policies/etc that benefit the organization?
Could this be considered bribing on behalf of the funding organization and accepting a bribe by 'returning the favor?' If not bribes, would you consider this practice ethical?
I ask this question in how it pertains to the situation of organizations with deep pockets such as the RIAA funding lawmakers to create laws like the DMCA and other laws that are currently coming down the pike.
Also, what advice would you give to shallow-pocket organizations such as the EFF or EPIC in fighting to keep the rights of honest, well meaning Internet users?
MR: I am lumping the two previous questions together because they ask essentially the same thing: "Do organizations have an undue influence on Washington"?
The best answer I know is: "Organizations have an expected level of influence on Washington."
Members of Congress are primarily interested in serving the needs of the people that they represent. They do this both for electoral reasons as well as the fact that they personally share the median interests of their constituency.
Every organization wants to convince the government that its position reflects the position that will either benefit the most people, a group of particularly needy people, or reflects the most consistent view with existing laws and practices. That sounds reasonable, doesn't it?
When a Congressman is lobbied either by corporation or his local Lion's Club, he is thinking in terms of how it benefits his constituents and his/her personal beliefs. Corporations know that, and tailor their legislative message to illustrate the benefits or perils to a Member's local or national constituency.
You must demonstrate to members of Congress and other government officials how your position will benefit their constituents and demonstrate that many of their constituents feel the same way. This is the key to effectively lobbying government even without deep pockets.
Theoretically being politically active or donating to campaigns helps elect Members of Congress who support your beliefs or position on a issue. That said, I've had clients who maxed out to Members of Congress who were actively opposed to the client's legislation because they agreed with his/her social agenda.
You don't walk in, hand over a check and change a vote. Doesn't happen.
Any time you think it all works from money, take a look at the list of Congressmen who did NOT support Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) but received money from tech companies!
Bottom line, the role of money in politics is murky.
So here is an example of murky money: You want to help the EFF? Write a big check. It will allow them to do better research, hire more people to lobby, fly to more conferences, print more flyers, etc. Hmmmm, sounds a lot like "providing funds to political campaigns in exchange for laws/policies/etc that benefit the organization", doesn't it?
What is the political future of the internet sales tax exemption?
MR: Excellent question, but one that needs to be broken into two parts. Internet Sales Tax is a term that is used but actually represents two different tax questions. First, the Internet Tax Moratorium is not a moratorium on sales or use tax, but a moratorium on access tax. An access tax is a tax on your internet service itself. When you look at your phone bill, you will notice access taxes at the bottom. The Internet Tax Moratorium prevents states and localities from levying taxes on your access. This moratorium is probably going to become permanent this year, and will represent a success in efforts to tear down barriers to eCommerce and remote working.
Next, there's the difficulty that states have in collecting sales tax on consumers' purchases from out-of-state retailers. There's nothing new about that, since it's been difficult for decades#8212ever since catalogs and phone orders became prevalent. It's not really an "Internet Tax" but a remote seller tax. Technically, consumers have to voluntarily pay a "use tax" on their out-of-state purchases, but compliance is predictably low.
States have tried to force remote catalog vendors to collect sales tax, but the U.S. Supreme Court said that states only have taxing power over businesses that have some physical presence in their states. Which is why walmart.com has to collect sales tax for any state where there's a Wal-Mart store (are there any states that don't have a Wal-Mart?).
In its ruling in the Quill decision, the Supreme Court gave the states an opening: they held that Congress could extend the states' taxing power, but only if the states standardized and simplified their tax rules. Today, there are over 7,500 separate sales tax jurisdictions in the U.S., each with its own rates and rules about what's taxable and what's not. Bricks-and-mortar retailers have to collect and file for just one jurisdiction, while remote sellers would have to collect and remit for every place their customers live.
With that kind of opening from the Supreme Court, several states started a campaign to unify and simplify their sales tax rules. This program is usually referred to as the Streamlined Sales Tax Project (SSTP). Earlier this month, they reached their goal of covering 20% of the U.S. population with states who have promised to simplify their sales tax regimes. (No promises about how simple it will be to file the forms and modify sellers' software and systems#8212just the vague promise that computers will make it simple enough.) The next step in the states' campaign is to ask Congress to give them the powers they seek, and they're already lining-up supporters for the legislation.
So there's nothing new about the states' difficulty in getting remote sellers to collect everyone's sales taxes. And nothing here is unique to the internet, since catalogs generate about four times as much as online sales. Truth is, internet e-commerce is costing states just one or two billion dollars year in lost sales taxes ationwide.
It's just that states are hungry for new revenue, and they've convinced themselves that there are billions to be gained by forcing out-of-state sellers to collect and remit their sales taxes. What remains to be seen is whether the incremental taxes are worth the costs and burden--especially on small businesses that look to the internet to expand their markets.
Top five issues?
What would you say are the top five issues that *need* an effective lobbying effort at the moment?
- Intellectual Property (IP is the major umbrella issue for tech in the foreseeable future. If you want to give your IP away under the GPL, it should be yours to give; and should you GPL it, you should be able to protect that right. If you want to monetize your IP, should be able to protect it and share it with a license. Fee diversion at the PTO is a bad thing, not enough is being done to find 'prior art.' )
- Internet Access Taxation and SSTP (Bad for eCommerce)
- Spam (Confusion reigns at this point, is it porn or UCE? Legislation must work hand in hand with technology and international pressure. Beware of unintended consequences)
- CDBTPA (We must continue fighting against DRM tech mandates. Technology should solve the problems, government should probably stay out)
- Privacy (make sure that a good balance is struck between corporate sharing and personal privacy. Make sure that if there is a failure, technology is not blamed)
Who knows best?
I was wondering if there are any senators/reps who stand out in your mind as particularly tech savvy? For instance, here in Michigan we're relatively proud of Lynn Rivers [slashdot.org]. By the same token, who sticks out as particularly clueless (perhaps that part wouldn't be the most politic to answer...)
by GigsVT (SeeMyProfile@slashdot.org)
Have you spoken with Rick Boucher? Is he really as tech savvy as he comes across as, or is he playing us? Does he really care about protecting rights online?
MR: First things first, I will not speak to the relative knowledge of any particular Member of Congress (what, do you think I want to become unemployed)??
That said, I will now violate the previous statement to say that yes, Congressman Boucher is quite tech savvy. I do this not to ingratiate myself with his office (which it won't) but to point out that Congressman Boucher is a Member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Members of committees with jurisdiction over issues like the Internet tend to be more knowledgeable about those issues. In addition, those members also have some extremely knowledgeable staff to help them on each of their key issues. You would be blown away to see how much energy is spent on something like the spam bill.
Some members of Congress even have scientific and technical backgrounds. For instance, Rush Holt was an actual rocket scientist at Princeton before be elected to Congress.
The problem they all face is time and resources. They have 600,000 people in their district, or a whole state for a Senator. There just aren't that many people "back on the ranch" screaming for technology legislation. And when they do, they may not be asking for the same thing you are.
by BlueFrog (craser at indiana dot edu)
I've heard it said several times that our (US) legislators are sincerely trying to do good on behalf of their constituency, but that most tech lobbyists work on behalf of groups with specific agendas. What hope is there for 'White Hat' tech lobbyists to make their mark in Washington's political scene, and what would you suggest to anyone with thoughts of becoming a lobbyist?
MR: In three parts:
1. Yes, the vast majority of Congresspersons are sincerely trying to do "good" on behalf of their constituency. I put good in quotes in this case because "good" may not be the correct word. Members of Congress are primarily concerned with the (relatively) parochial interests of the 600,000 people in their district in the case of Representatives, or the people in their state in the case of Senators. If you define good as "benefiting the people of the district/state" then yes, Members of Congress are _all_ trying very hard to do what they believe is good on behalf of their constituency.
That said, Members do consider the greater good for the US, and the outside world, but their first focus (and one could argue it should be) is on their immediate electorate.
2. Everyone thinks they are a "white hat" lobbyist, but their own perception of the hat is colored by the client. Look at Sun, are they a "white hat" because they went after MS? Are they still a "white hat" now that they are going after Linux? IBM used to be the "Great Satan" before MS. Now that they are supporting Open Source (after a fashion) are they now "white hat"? "White Hat" vs. "Black Hat" in technology is a myth.
Corporate tech lobbyists are not working against tech. No one is lobbying for a return to the era of 8 pound cell phones and thermal paper fax machines. In most cases tech lobbyists are working to protect the income of the company or companies they represent, while trying to keep the government out of technology in general.
3. Becoming a Lobbyist
So you want to become a lobbyist? a lobbyist is an advocate for a position, nothing more, nothing less. You already lobby in daily life when you urge your friends to see the movie you want, or eat at your favorite restaurant. When your write a letter to your congressman, school-board or city council you are lobbying as well.
If you mean you want to put food on the table as a professional advocate in the field of politics, then there are two routes that come to mind: Most obvious, go to law school. Second possibility, work your way up in politics. Third, and preferred, do both.
If law school interests you, remember a lobbyist is an advocate just as a lawyer is an advocate. The vast majority of lobbyists have JDs or LLMs. This is by no means a requirement, and you don't necessarily need to get your law degree as a first order of business, but it is a common path.
Essentially your life plan would look like this: go to law school, work for a company in their legal department, get assigned to the govn't relations division, be willing to take a job in DC, get transferred to DC, do a good job advocating your company's position while building relationships with Members of Congress and staff, find a firm (most likely one your company has hired as an outside consultant) that believes you can bring business into the firm, get hired by that firm, find new business, advocate your new client's position, find new business, advocate your new client's position... you get the picture.
If politics interest you (see my definition of politics), then become politically active now, don't hesitate for a second. Political activism does not necessarily mean waving signs at crowded intersections; it can mean raising money, working in a campaign office, interning or working at a party headquarters. If you do not come from a political family, or you haven't really been involved in politics on any level and the next campaign is too far away to wait for, I would suggest looking for an internship either in Washington DC or your State Capitol.
Interning allows you to get a peek under the covers of how Congress and the Administration work. You will get to see the vast piles of mail that come in daily from every concerned citizen and crackpot alike, and you get the pleasure of assisting someone in drafting a honest, well thought out response. You will answer endless phonecalls from people saying "don't take away my social security/guns/right to chose/ right to life/ right to a job/right to a better life. You will run errands for people from the home town, from getting passes to the House gallery to tours of the Capitol underground. You will make sure that if someone from the district has a problem back home, you get a caseworker to help. You will make sure that orders for flags that have been flown above the Capitol have been filled, and all the flag certificates are in place. You will get to savour the Friday nights when members are out of town and you get to leave before 8:00pm. You will feel blessed if the Senator or Representative remembers your name. And you will do it all for no pay.
You would think that a thankless job with no pay would be easy to get, but you would be wrong. I have seen Harvard law school graduates answering phones and holding softball fields for 3 hours in 90 degree weather just to be part of the action. To get an internship, start looking at your home state Senators and Representatives. Write cover letters and send resumes' to everyone that might bring you in (any connection you have with the home state and/ or district is important). If you can travel to DC, try to arrange "informational" interviews with the Administrative Assistant for your hometown Rep. Discuss your interest in interning with them or with any other Member of Congress that may have internships available. Do not make statements like "I want to do substantive work"; to them, you know essentially nothing of substance, why would someone want your hands on the reins of government?
If you are fortunate enough to land an internship and do well during it, you can try to get a job on the hill. This will not bring relief, only more work for essentially no pay (as an aside, my wife worked on Capitol Hill for almost four years and never made as much as her tuition was at Smith College. She is now in Vet school).
Lawmakers' awareness of the CDBTPA
I am concerned that legislators are not aware of how dangerous the SSSCA (now CDBTPA) is, especially in light of our recent disaster and our coming war. Now more than ever, we need to be concerned about the possibility of losing our individual freedoms.
Are our lawmakers aware of the CDBTPA and its dangers? Do you think it will be debated in detail, or will it pass "under the radar?"
MR: As to the loss of personal liberty, let me set up my soapbox and put my job in jeopardy:
If you think the DMCA or the CDBTPA was a threat to your personal liberty, you would be outraged and disgusted by the recently passed anti-terrorism legislation, the PATRIOT Act.
A quick overview of the rights and privileges that are destroyed by this legislation are stunning and saddening. Tax information sharing, secret searches, grand jury testimony sharing, warrentless email searches (granted this already existed in a form), possibly warrantless searches of medical or education information, poorly worded money laundering provisions, Single-Jurisdiction search warrants and so on.
Proponents will argue that most of these items only really come in to play under FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. But the problem lies in the fact that law enforcement will seek to use new laws to show a nexus (a word we will revisit on Internet taxes) between domestic illegal acts, like selling drugs, and the funding of terrorists. I don't want to insinuate that I support drug dealers, but I personally feel that some in law enforcement will, in the zealous pursuit of criminals, accidentally destroy the lives of innocent Americans.
Much of the language feels like a change in the tenor of how we view people. The presumption of innocence has been given away, to be replaced by the presumption that anyone who meets a certain profile is guilty by association. Herein lies a nexus (that word again) of computers and information gathering. Prior to the ability of computers to handle and process large amounts of data, I never really worried about the FBI or the NSA collecting data on everyone. I knew that it would be impossible for them to effectively deal with the sheer volume of information we all produce. However, many of you here on this site create and work with relational databases of real size and with computing iron that can spit out useful information from that data.
To me, the ability of computers to deal with data produces a situation where law enforcement can use newfound tools to say "give me the addresses of all people with a Arabic surname, who studied math, chemistry or physics at a U.S. university, and were members of the on-campus muslim organization". Suddenly you have created a presumption of guilt of a whole raft of people who did nothing wrong. Hopefully the police will be discreet as they investigate each and every name, but sometimes it may cost some poor sucker his job. Imagine your prospects for maintaining job security in a down-market when the FBI interviews your boss about your activities.
Worst of all, the Senate and the President have fought any sunset provisions. This part baffles me. I know law enforcement does not want ongoing investigations to be hampered by loss of their new found power in a few years, but if the law turns out to be a valuable part of the war on terrorism, then pass the damn thing again! Normally, the Legislative branch is loath to cede power to any other branch, and I am amazed at the upper chamber's decision to roll over.
That said, I am at least marginally mollified to see that _some_ sunset provisions will survive from the house bill, even if all the other good things added by Congressman Barr and Senator Feingold have been refused or removed.
I know we all have to give up a little in this time of crisis, I just want to know that I will get it back before I am old and grey...
[end of job threatening rant]
On the CDBTPA specifically, the CDBTPA has not been introduced this year, and that is in part to lobbying from industry and consumer groups. The good thing is most of the tech industry does not seem to be supportive of expanding the DRM though CDBTPA. If it should be re-introduced, make sure you make your Representatives aware of your opposition, and use some of the techniques on the list below.
Which communication methods work best, in order?
A lot of /.ers like email and tech forms of communication. Can you give us any insight into which methods work best?
I've provided what I think might be a ranking order, from best to worst, in terms of methods of communicating with a legislator on a bill, based on my experience, but could you give us any ratios?
An example might be:
1 personal appearance at his office = 2 conversations at a house party = 100 handwritten letters = 200 handwritten postcards = 1000 typed letters = 50,000 emails.
Here's my list of methods I can think of:
- talking with legislator when he's gardening or fixing the car on a bill;
- lunch or coffee (one on one);
- personal appearance at his office (phoned in ahead, as a constituent);
- personal conversation at a house party or fundraiser (more than 1 minute);
- question at a constituency open house (as advertised in local papers) (usually have 20-40 people);
- handwritten postcard with cool pics on other side;
- handwritten postcard found free in coffee shop or movie house;
- handwritten letter, hand addressed;
- typed letter, hand signed, with hand P.S.;
- typed postcard, hand signed, with hand P.S.;
- fax, hand signed;
- actiongram faxed letter like on EDF or EFF;
- actiongram email, modified from boilerplate in own words;
- actiongram email, boilerplate;
- weird knick-knack gift, like a techie toy we have tons of, wrapped up in a box and sent;
- weird knick-knack gift, connected to issue;
- boring gift, like stapler remover from local Kiwanas
Anything I missed?
MR: You did a great job of hitting the major things. You want a job, J?
The order is pretty good too, though I would say A. might be over the top. When a Member is at home washing the car, they may want to just wash the car. If you had a long day at the help desk, how do you feel about your neighbor coming over to ask why his #8216cup holder' doesn't seem to work any more?
Also, move I above F, and kill off all the postcards. Finally, move faxes and email way up. One of the only good things to come out of 9/11 is that Members of Congress have been forced to use email as a preferred method of communication. Paper mail and knickknacks have become harder to get into the Capitol.
There is one other way that you can help. A good, one page bullet point memo outlining a problem and a solution is a great thing, and is damn hard to write. But given the constraint on time that every staffer faces, a good bullet point one pager can be a godsend when you have to brief your boss.
Can a non-US person do anything?
Like many (most?) /. readers, I live outside the US, and am not a US citizen; in theory, US laws should not concern me as long as I remain outside US jurisdiction. Reality proves otherwise, however (witness Jon Johansen and Dmitry Sklyarov, for example.)
My question is this: can non-US citizens help to influence US decision-makers for the greater good, and if so, how?
Well, not completely, I just came from a meeting with some MEPs from the European Internet Foundation, and Members of Parliament do have relationships with U.S. Representatives.
But for the most part, you are going to have to lobby your Representative to lobby our Representatives.
Many slashdotters expect the government to regulate spam and Microsoft, but remain hands-off with things such as encryption, free speech and copyright. Do you think that it is reasonable to draw a line like this and expect Congress not to cross it, or should we take a more consistent stance and push for the government to stay further away from the Internet and technology all together?
MR: Ironically, it was Milton Friedman who said that Silicon Valley was committing suicide by trying to leverage the government in their competition with Microsoft. Today, many of those same companies now find themselves under scrutiny. While there is certainly a role for government to play in areas of antitrust enforcement, it can be a bit of a broad sword in the tech industry where things change so quickly. Just look at the growth of Linux; its growth has little or nothing to do with the Antitrust Suit. Browsers, on the other hand, the core of the suit, have largely become irrelevant.
In the long run, too much regulation favors large companies, not smaller ones. Once you bring Washington into technology, it's hard to get Washington to leave. It is probably better for the technology community to let the marketplace sort things out, and only look to government for very small, surgical tasks. We all know we don't want "Technology at the speed of government".
My biggest concern these days
Everyone here is aware that more and more broadly-worded laws are getting passed, making all sorts of formerly innocuous computer activities "criminal." I've just emailed my representatives regarding the "hacking is terrorism" nonsense that's being looked at, and I've informed them that laws like this cause me to re-evaluate, on a yearly basis, whether or not I should continue working in IT, or find some job in a safer field which is not under seemingly continuous legislative attack. My question, after all that, is do you think the representative will look at that and care? My state is trying very hard to draw technology workers here, which I'm sure is the case in every state in the union except California and Oregon. Would an appeal to the simple "I'm afraid to do this anymore because it's becoming legally dangerous to work in computers" be of any use, or did I waste my breath?
MR: This is not really a new question. Since the time I remember watching my father walk down the halls at the University with a stack of punchcards, computer types have been revered and feared. If you have a job in IT, you are not likely to run afoul of the law. Heck, there is a strong chance that you could be working in a company developing software that does work for the Office of Homeland Security (the only branch of government with a truly expanding budget for tech).
We create this fear in the non tech savvy population ourselves, and I personally think we enjoy it. As a general rule, the most paranoid folks I know are techies. They see the government, or a malicious hacker, around every packet. At the O'Reilly Conference, I was speaking to someone about 802.11 security and he said to me "yeah, I have a card in my laptop, but I leave it off because I am not comfortable with the security yet."
I can't imagine my mother saying that.
For her, it either works or doesn't. She only gets scared when I explain to her exactly how vulnerable she could be.
Every time a tech person gets on the TV and tells the world that your credit card info isn't safe on a computer, constituents write Congress looking for a fix.
Industry understands the balance between privacy and data sharing (not necessarily in a way you would like). As I type this, the House Financial Services Committee is marking up the "Fair Credit Reporting Act" (FCRA). This Act represents the tug-of-war Congress faces between sharing info and protecting the consumer.
Reed is Vice President for Public Affairs at the Association for Competitive Technology.