Wired to Wired

Dean Finds That Courting Blogocrats Means Answering Tough Questions

Thanks to his Internet-centered campaigning, presidential contender Howard Dean appears to be far more wired into the wired electorate than his Democratic rivals or George W. Bush. Dean's innovative use of the Web has gotten plaudits from the press, and his courting of the wired crowd seems to be paying off—10,000 people showed up for an August 24 rally in cybercity Seattle. But if Dean is to keep the goodwill of blogocrats, he must find the message to match their medium.

It is perhaps with this obligation in mind that the former Vermont governor spent a week in mid July as a guest blogger on the online journal of Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig. A cyberspace hero, Lessig is the author of Code, and Other Laws of Cyberspace and The Future of Ideas, both of which passionately advocate the value of preserving the Internet for the public domain and warn of the dangers of giving too much power over innovation to corporations through new copyright extensions and restriction of competition.

The emerging online intellectual-property movement is broad and potentially baffling to those not fluent in both legal and technological jargon. It covers controversies as diverse as Napster, FCC rules on media consolidation, the Microsoft monopoly case, and the use of open-source software. In recent years, techies' ire has coalesced around two pieces of largely under-publicized legislation: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, both passed in 1998.

Open sources: Lessig (above) typed an invite to Dean.
photo: lessig.org
Open sources: Lessig (above) typed an invite to Dean.

The Sonny Bono Act, notably backed by Disney, extended the term of copyright for the 11th time in 40 years, to the life of the author plus 70 years. Online entrepreneur Eric Eldred lost a challenge to the act in the U.S. Supreme Court in early 2003; he unsuccessfully argued that copyrights were no longer meaningfully limited in time because of these repeated extensions.

The DMCA attempts to strengthen existing copyright protections for the new online media. Its most detested provision is referred to as "anticircumvention." Roughly, any software tool whose main purpose is to break security encryption on a piece of copyrighted intellectual content, whether a DVD, a music file, or a software program, is now illegal. This new protection for copyrighted material carries no accompanying provision for fair use; in practice, large media and software companies, including eight major movie studios, have had programmers prosecuted and jailed for writing decryption devices even when the programmers' code has had a legitimate academic purpose. And the law certainly doesn't make it any easier to trade movies or music in peer-to-peer networks like Napster.

For Lessig and his camp, including members of free-culture groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the new copyright protections are not annoying technicalities but a social counter-revolution in process, turning the "creative commons" that was the early Internet into an environment even more controlled by corporations than "real space."

"Those threatened by this technology of freedom have learned how to turn this technology off. The switch is now being thrown. We are doing nothing about it," Lessig concluded in The Future of Ideas.

On the surface, at least, Dean's campaign is operating very much in sync with the idea of the creative commons. His campaign manager, Joe Trippi, a software industry insider and a self-described avid reader of blogs, extols the virtues of Dean's "bottom-up" strategy over "broadcast politics."

His rivals John Kerry and John Edwards have taken note; both recently launched campaign blogs. But Dean's people have moved far beyond that. Using its official online campaign journal, Blogforamerica.com, the commercial website Meetup.com, and scores of unofficial sites, the Dean campaign has coordinated meetings and rallies, raising considerable funds from thousands of small donors in targeted message-sending bursts. (The campaign says it raised $500,000 in a few days in July in response to its publicizing a Dick Cheney $2,000-a-plate fundraiser.) Most appealing is the opportunity for young, wired citizens familiar with Web journals to give online feedback and thereby get excited about democracy. Lessig has referred to the Dean campaign's strategy as "open-source," a term describing free and collaboratively created software, like the original Linux.

But how committed is Dean to the principles behind the open-source idea? When the unofficial, but large, Dean Nation blog submitted a list of readers' 10 most popular questions to the Dean campaign in April, the DMCA made it, along with "9-11 Investigation" and "Cutting Gov't Spending." Yet in the five short entries that Dean posted on Lessig's blog, he managed to avoid the DMCA and the Sonny Bono Act, though hundreds of posters both during the week and later mentioned the issue or asked him to state a position.

"What is your position on the threat to the public domain? And what policies do you intend to support to address that threat?" asked Dean Nation blogger Aziz H. Poonawalla. A poster to Lessig's blog named J.B. Nicholson-Owens complained on July 21, "Dean had the opportunity to research something related to copyright issues before coming here. I see little (if any) evidence he did that. To me this comes off as profoundly disrespectful of the audience. During the (mostly one-way) discussion, he had time to compose a response that would give us some inkling of what he was thinking on any copyright-related issue (which is the main topic on this blog)."

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