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CPSR History


In October of 1981, as part of the growing concern over the apparently increasing threat of nuclear war, a discussion group was formed on a computer message system at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Over the ensuing months, a small group, drawn mostly from Xerox/PARC and nearby Stanford University, began meeting weekly to discuss the issues. Recognizing that computer professionals in other areas might share similar concerns, the group debated the merits of forming an organization dedicated to raising the awareness of the profession and the public with regard to the dangers inherent in the use of computers in critical systems.

In June 1982, the group adopted the name Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility - CPSR. Soon after, related groups began to form in other cities, making it clear that there was sufficient interest to justify the formation of a national organization. Accordingly, CPSR established itself as a national organization incorporated under the laws of California in March 1983. CPSR was later granted tax-exempt non-profit status as a 501(c)3 organization by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. CPSR opened an office in Palo Alto at the end of 1983, staffed by the first National Chairperson, Severo Ornstein, and the first National Secretary, Laura Gould.

Up until the mid 1980s, CPSR focused nearly all of its energy on the dangers posed by the massive increase in the use of computing technology in military applications. The organization's most significant early successes came from our opposition to the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which President Reagan announced in early 1983. CPSR's campaign against the SDI led to considerable growth in membership and chapter formation throughout the United States.

From the beginning CPSR has tried to communicate concerns about the appropriate use of computer technology to the public, to policymakers, and to the profession. With its reputation for careful analysis and well-reasoned argument CPSR was able to have a significant impact on each of these constituencies. In the early years, CPSR message was spread through publications, conferences, and special events. For example, in support of its work on computers in the military, CPSR produced a book entitled Computers in Battle: Will They Work? (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987, edited by David Bellin and Gary Chapman) and an award-winning slide show entitled Reliability and Risk.

CPSR Broadens Scope

The name "Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility," however, bespeaks a much broader scope of concern. Computer technology affects society in many ways. As practitioners, members of CPSR began to recognize the importance of applying the same concerns for social responsibility in other domains in which computing technology is used. In a 1985 letter, Severo Ornstein observed:

If we are really to become recognized as the leading professional organization concerned about a whole spectrum of critical social issues related to computers, then we must find ways to register the breadth of our concerns more clearly. We need to encourage discussion, articles, and projects in other area such as surveillance, privacy, etc., where abuse can be devastating to society in other than direct physical terms.

Since that time, CPSR's program has broadened considerably. Some projects were initiated by CPSR staff in response to opportunities that arose. Other projects are and were sparked by activity in a local chapter or a group of concerned individuals. Both models have proven successful within CPSR.

In 1986 The Privacy and Civil Liberties Project, began in response to requests for research assistance from Washington-based organizations that lacked CPSR's computing expertise. CPSR's successful completion of a small contract led to additional grants and contracts that made it possible for CPSR to open a Washington-based privacy office in 1988. Marc Rotenberg was named the director of that office, which grew rapidly and in June 1994 was reorganized as an independent entity called the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a joint project of CPSR and the Fund for Constitutional Government. Eventually EPIC spun off completely and continues to take on challenging issues and cases.

The Workplace Project, established in 1986, focused on strategies for participatory design of workplace systems that bring users directly into the design process. The Workplace Project organized the first international conference on Participatory Design (PDC) in 1990, and they continue to meet every two years.

Since the mid-80's, CPSR has been researching voting systems, observing elections, commenting on voting systems standards, and participating in the administration of elections. In 1994, CPSR sent a team to the Republic of South Africa to assist that nation in that year's historic elections. In 2003 CPSR Commented on the California Touch Screen Task Force Report. In 2004 CPSR worked with Verified Voting Foundation and the Election Protection Coalition to develop a web-based Election Incident Reporting System.  During the 2004 U.S. elections, EIRS collected over 30,000 voting questions and incidents , allowing call-center operators to help voters with immediate problems, and gather data for use in post-election litigation and legislation to improve the voting system.

In 1991, CPSR sponsored the first conference on Computers, Freedom and Privacy (CFP), which continues to be a premiere annual event for those interested in information technology issues.

In early 1991, Gary Chapman, CPSR's Executive Director, became Program Director of the 21st Century Project, a two-year study for the reorientation of research and development funding for science and technology toward non-military solutions to pressing national and international problems. During the lifetime of that project, Gary also ran a Cambridge Office of CPSR, which closed when the 21st Century Project became independent of CPSR in July 1993. Gary continues to administer the 21st Century Project, which is now based in Austin, Texas.

In March 1993, CPSR undertook a project centered around the National Information Infrastructure (NII), now referred to as The Internet, proposed by the Clinton/Gore administration. CPSR was early to call for widespread access to network technology at an affordable cost to serve the public interest. CPSR's position paper on the NII, "Serving the Community: A Public-Interest Vision of the National Information Infrastructure," was published in September 1993 and received excellent reviews from policymakers. CPSR continues to work to bring the benefits of The Internet to people who might otherwise be disenfranchised from technology. In 1994, the Seattle chapter of CPSR launched the Seattle Community Network, which provides network access to members of the surrounding communities.

Later that year, CPSR took on the Clipper Chip, an insecure encryption device proposed by the U.S. government. Over 50,000 people signed CPSR's petition. The Clipper chip was eventually defeated.

In 1995 CPSR reported how the U.S. Telecommunications Bill would Fail to Serve the Public Interest by reducing diversity and public debate.

In 1996 CPSR Challenged the Communications Decency Act for its censorship of free speech on the Internet, and was affirmed by the resounding victory for the First Amendment in the Supreme Court when the Communications Decency Act was declared unconstitutional.

In 1997 One Planet, One Net focused CPSR's energy on the beginning stages of defining the public interest in Internet governance and giving it a strong voice in the forums deciding governance issues. CPSR continues to take a lead through participatation in the ongoing World Summit on Information Society sponsored by the United Nations.

Just after September 11, 2001, CPSR submitted Comments on Legislative Proposals to Protect National Security and their impact on the Communications Infrastructure to the Internet Caucus Advisory Committee, sharing in the national concern over the possibility of further terrorist acts. But concerned about the possible impacts of legislation that is overly broad in its language and unclear in implementation. CSPR called for any legislation that is adopted to balance concerns with security and law enforcement against concerns regarding legitimate uses of technology, privacy, and other civil liberties. And in 2001 CPSR questioned national identification schemes.

In 2002
CPSR submitted reply comments about Microsoft and was included as one of the 47 "major" filings of the 30,000 comments released by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Since 2001 Ongoing Projects have provided the means and structure for CPSR activists to formalize their activities as CPSR program by establishing semi-autonomous cost-centers oriented on appropriate and Board approved CPSR areas. This structure encourages serious ongoing program work by members while expanding CPSR expertise on appropriate issues. Projects have included Privaterra - securing human rights, Public Sphere Project- harnessing IT's power to foster humankind's inspring potential, Election Incident Reporting Project, and the Civil Society Democracy Project.

Recently CPSR has focused on expanding international membership and scope. CPSR now has members in over 30 countries. In July 2004 the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) granted CPSR accreditation as an affiliated nongovernmental organization.

For more CPSR highlights see News from 1994-2004 and A CPSR Timeline from 1981-2002.
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Last modified June 01, 2005 11:42 PM

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Why did you join CPSR?

I support critical thinking--including ethical issues--when it comes to decisions about the use of technology. I want more people to have access to learn about technology. I would like to see resources go into finding and implementing technologies that provide the most public good.