Silicon Valley vs. K Street

Why computer geeks should give up on politics.

The self-described geeks in America’s tech trenches cheered the government’s clampdown on Microsoft, but now they have sobered up to realize they’re next. Digital junkies are gearing up to march on Washington—virtually speaking, of course. The geeks’ call to arms is Congress’ attempt to legislate digital rights management into the homes of everyday Americans. Like a super-duper cable-TV scrambler, DRM technology combines encryption, digital signatures, and tamper-proof hardware to keep music, movies, games, and other digital goods out of the hands of home pirates who want to play them without paying for them. 

But all the encryption in the world is powerless without laws that forbid picking the locks. So,under Hollywood’s influence, Capitol Hill has focused its legislative searchlight on the desktops of personal computer users. One bill seeks to mandate uncrackable copy protection inside every digital device made or sold in America. Another would let Hollywood conduct search-and-destroy missions against home computers, by seeding file-sharing P2P networks with virus programs that erase bootlegged music (and who knows what else) from consumers’ disk drives. Programmer-turned-essayist Eric Raymond summed up geeks’ fears: “The worst threats are not bad technologies, but bad laws.” But just because Congress wants to get under the hood of our computers, that doesn’t mean the quid pro quo of turning programmers into lobbyists is the smart response.

The attempts to apply tech IQs to the political process have been embarrassing. Take GeekPAC. (Please.) An amateur political action committee announced in March, GeekPAC brought together respected voices from the Net, including Raymond and Linux Journaleditor Doc Searls, who pioneered the practice of toting a wireless laptop to tech CEOs’ speeches in order to debunk them live on the Web. Members hoped to meet with lawmakers to explain the unintended consequences of laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. But after the initial buzz, the plan seems to have been forgotten, even by its organizers. The group’s home page is still under construction.

Part of the problem is a lack of backup from corporate geekdom. As seen in the agenda of bipartisan lobby group TechNet, Silicon Valley’s CEOs dodge concerns about DRM to focus on accounting reform, shareholder lawsuits, and tax credits. “Where is anyone with the juice to get things done?” asks journalist Hal Plotkin. “They’re all busy protecting their stock options.” As a result, educational efforts such as GeekPAC miss the point. The problem isn’t that lawmakers misunderstand the effect of their legislation. It’s that politicians don’t fear the geek bloc’s power at the polls.

And why should they? Weblog owners promised to Blog the Vote this fall by rallying behind a third party candidate against Rep. Howard Coble, the North Carolina Republican who sponsored the P2P virus bill. But “sending Howard a message” via the polls was a pipe dream. He averaged 90 percent of the vote in his previous two campaigns against Democrats, who smartly gave up running against him. Enter the techies: Weaned on market share, they don’t seem to grok that in a run for office, 10 percent at the polls sends Howard exactly the wrong message.

It’s a losing ploy to try to beat government on its own turf. The geeks have already proved they’re great not at mastering bureaucracy but at end-running it. Disruptive technologies such as the Web, Linux, and Napster were rolled out by hackers who turned a deaf ear to the sputtering protests of authority figures. Take a Unix system administrator drinking, and he’ll tell you how he put the whole company on the Web back in 1995 before the suits could schedule a meeting to stop him.

We need that attitude now, because the stakes have gotten bigger than home entertainment. The Bush administration, more interested in terrorists than in Internet pirates, has launched a $245 million database project to profile its citizens, under the Dilbert-worthy moniker of Total Information Awareness. Led by convicted (later overturned) Iran-Contra felon John Poindexter, TIA is so ambitious that its heads at one point considered reconfiguring the Internet to make users traceable. You don’t have to be Marvin Minsky to guess the outcome when Total Information Awareness meets Murphy’s Law: Just imagine if the mistaken entries on your last credit report had spelled not deadbeat but hijacker.

Poindexter’s budget may be daunting, but thwarting authority with cheap technology is the geeks’ favorite game. Remember how Web sites and MP3 troves, many set up on discarded PCs, ran corporate roadblocks and cracked Hollywood’s lockbox. The government’s snoops on the Net have already run up against encrypted e-mail, Web traffic anonymizers, and offshore mirror sites out of their jurisdictions. Total Information Awareness will gather mostly offline data—car rentals, credit cards, phone calls—but hackers have their fingers in these as well. Don’t be surprised if TIA is undermined more by a series of bugs than by a string of embarrassing leaks to the New York Times.

The old saw that the Net routes around damage, including the political kind, has been around just long enough to be unfashionable. That doesn’t make it any less true. For all their complaining, the nerds are way ahead of slow-grinding legislators. The only way Washington can catch up is if the geeks stop to play politics.