CPSR approach to influencing
|Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility|
CPSR'S APPROACH TO ADVISING POLICYMAKERS
October 17, 1996
In the early 1980s, a group of computer researchers in California
formed an organization called Computer Professionals for Social
Responsibility (CPSR) to address their concerns about military
application of computing technology and military funding of computer-science
research. The organization quickly grew to a membership of about
2000 nationwide and has remained at approximately that size ever
since. CPSR also has broadened its focus to include electronic
privacy, computers in the workplace, and other areas where computer
technology affects society.
From the beginning, CPSR has enjoyed much greater influence over
technology policy in the United States than one might expect given
the size of its membership. This influence often comes about by
CPSR's being directly involved in the policymaking process. Policymakers
at all government levels -- federal, state, and local -- pay attention
to CPSR's analyses and positions, and often solicit CPSR's involvement
in policy deliberations. See the accompanying sidebar for a summary
of situations in which CPSR has had direct influence on government
policymakers in the U.S.
Even though this chapter focuses on ways in which CPSR and FifF
have been *directly* involved in advising policymakers, it is
worthwhile to mention briefly several *indirect* ways that such
organizations can have an impact. For example, CPSR often sponsors
public talks and debates on the issues within its purview, organizes
and sponsors conferences, publishes books and articles, and serves
as a resource for the broadcast and print media. Another indirect
means CPSR has of influencing policy is raising the social consciousness
of computer professionals, enhancing their ability to recognize
and control how their work affects society.
One thing to mention about CPSR's ability to advise policymakers
is that CPSR, like other non-profit, tax-exempt, public-interest
organizations in the U.S., is not permitted to spend much of its
budget advocating specific legislation. Such activity is called
"lobbying". Tax-exempt organizations are not supposed
to lobby. For example, CPSR cannot print many articles in its
Newsletter supporting or opposing proposed laws. However, this
does not prevent CPSR from directly advising legislators. Organizations
such as CPSR may spend a small proportion of their budget on lobbying
activities. CPSR can also publish as many articles as it wants
that provide general education about the issues raised by a pending
policy decision or proposed law. Furthermore, lobbying done by
volunteers costs no money and therefore doesn't count against
the organization's limit. Finally, advising lawmakers is not considered
lobbying if the lawmakers request the advice.
WHY CPSR HAS INFLUENCE
If CPSR had millions of members, it would be easy to understand
why politicians in the U.S. listen to its analyses and recommendations:
potential votes. Given CPSR's relatively small membership, something
else must account for its high degree of influence with policymakers.
It seems likely that several aspects of CPSR's organizational
purpose and identity play an important role.
First, CPSR provides policymakers with technical expertise that
is free of any direct stake in the policy being discussed. The
stakeholders in a policy decision are those who stand to gain
or lose as a result of it. The commodities most often at stake
are money and power. Stakeholders include companies in industries
that sell or use technology (in both regulated and unregulated
industries), government agencies, and organizations of people
who would be affected. Large stakeholders always present their
arguments to policymakers. It is worthwhile for them to pay experts
to back up their position with technical arguments, e.g., "It
would work better to do it our way instead of your way,"
or "What you're asking us to do is technically infeasible."
Since government policymakers usually lack technical expertise,
they have no way to evaluate such arguments on their own. Therefore,
they welcome technical advice from an organization that does not
represent a stakeholder interest.
Second, it is important that CPSR represents the "public-interest",
rather than a "special interest". In American English,
a "special-interest group" is an organization that works
to improve conditions for a sub-group of the population. Examples
of special interest groups might be industry associations (e.g.,
the American Electronics Association), labor unions (e.g., United
Autoworkers), and citizens groups (e.g., the American Association
of Retired People). A "public-interest group," in contrast,
works to improve or maintain conditions and rights for everyone,
not just members of any particular group. Examples of public-interest
groups in the U.S. are the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU),
the American Heart Association, and CPSR. Because of its name,
some people think CPSR is an advocacy organization for computer
professionals, but in fact, CPSR is not and has never been that
sort of organization, but rather seeks to improve the impact of
computer technology on everyone. Policymakers recognize this,
and pay more attention to CPSR as a result.
Third, for influencing policymakers in the U.S. Federal government,
it is important that CPSR's base of operations is outside of Washington,
D.C. Politicians and their staff in the capital are so often bombarded
with opinions and suggestions from think-tanks, policy institutes,
and lobbyists "inside the beltway" (refering to the
circular highway that rings the U.S. capital city) that they tend
to pay less attention to them than to organizations based "outside
Fourth, when advising policymakers at all levels of government,
it helps that CPSR has a membership, even though a small one.
(Policymakers sometimes assume that CPSR is larger than it really
is, and CPSR doesn't always bother to correct their impression.)
Politicians and their staff often seem to place more weight on
advice they get from someone who represents a public constituency,
rather than from someone who represents the opinion of an individual,
a company, or an industry.
Fifth, CPSR has influence on policymakers because it has a reputation
for providing well-reasoned arguments and positions. There are
two very different ways a public-interest organization can speak
out on an issue. CPSR's historically-preferred approach is to
present its positions "professionally," be diligent
in doing its homework, and have evidence to back up its claims.
This tendency is probably the result of CPSR's origins in academia
and research labs. It certainly is effective in winning the respect
of government policymakers. The alternative approach is to be
loud, inflammatory, and strident in presenting arguments. In the
U.S., this is called "presenting catchy sound-bites."
While this tactic gets the attention of the press and the public,
CPSR uses it sparingly, because an organization that uses it too
much may find itself no longer welcome at the policy table.
Sixth, while CPSR often positions itself as a dissident voice
in the computer industry, the organization is usually willing
to work with authorities to devise policies that benefit the public.
As a result, CPSR is treated as a fellow policymaker. The danger
of this is that CPSR could be co-opted and compromised into positions
with which it disagrees. On the other hand, if CPSR always acted
as a vocal dissident, it might remain true to its ideals, but
would probably be marginalized and ignored by policymakers, thereby
being rendered ineffective.
Seventh and last, it helps that policymakers are impressed by
CPSR's credentials. The representatives CPSR sends to advise policymakers
tend to have advanced degrees, faculty and research jobs, technical
publications, etc. CPSR also has an Advisory Board onsisting of
some of many world-class computer scientists and professionals.
Unlike CPSR's Board of Directors, members of the Advisory Board
rarely take an active role in the organization. Their main function
is to lending their eminence to the organization so that policymakers
will take CPSR seriously.
When one examines the many situations in which CPSR has participated
in government policymaking, a common pattern can be seen, consisting
of some or all of the following steps:
1. Someone in a government agency notes a problem (e.g., that
it is costly and slow to collect road tolls) and proposes a technological
solution (e.g., putting a unique-identifier + transponder in every
auto). Those who propose the solution often do not notice problems
it would create, or they base their proposed technological solution
only on best-case analyses.
2. CPSR gets involved either by inserting itself into the policymaking
process through public-comment opportunities or by being invited
in by policymakers. Sometimes CPSR is invited to participate in
an official capacity after CPSR members have testified as members
of the public, because policymakers see that CPSR can provide
technical expertise that is independent of any stakeholder position.
3. CPSR produces an analysis that points out flaws or disadvantages
of the proposed solution. These usually have to do with privacy,
reliability, and safety.
4. The agency that proposed the criticized technological solution
accuses CPSR of being opposed to technological progress, and of
being against solving the original problem, e.g., against alleviating
traffic jams at toll booths.
5. CPSR proposes a solution that solves the original problem but
without the undesirable side-effects, e.g., encrypted temporary
vehicle identifiers, issued anew at the beginning of each trip.
6. The agency claims CPSR's solution isn't feasible, and eventually
reveals that they have reasons other than those they initially
stated for their particular proposal. That is, they consider some
of the "negative" side-effects CPSR has exposed to be
*desireable*, e.g., to help keep track of peoples' whereabouts.
CPSR's alternative, which avoids those side-effects, is therefore
unsatisfactory to them.
Fortunately, step 6 of this pattern is not always present. In many cases, the alternative solutions proposed by CPSR have been adopted, satisfying the government agency and serving the interests of the public.
EXAMPLE: CALLER ID
A good example of CPSR influencing government decisions by advising
policymakers is provided by the Calling Number ID controversy.
It is a good example because it contains most of the steps in
the above-mentioned pattern, because CPSR advised policymakers
at several levels of government, and because the advice was delivered
both directly and indirectly.
Calling Number ID (CNID) is a new telephone service that delivers
the numbers of calling telephones to the recipient's telephone.
It is often referred to as "Caller ID," even though
that name is less accurate. The stated purpose of CNID is to allow
people to screen the calls they receive. A full explanation of
CPSR's position on Calling Number ID is beyond the scope of this
chapter. For present purposes, suffice it to say that CPSR finds
CNID to be a poor solution for screening calls to residences as
well as a threat to people's privacy, and believes that better
solutions are possible that don't have CNID's problems.
CPSR's initial involvement in the CNID controversy was to publish
several opinion articles about it. The articles were published
in the CPSR Newsletter and in newspapers around the U.S. Then,
CPSR began to get directly involved in hearings being held by
Public Utilities Commissions (state agencies that regulate telephone
industry and other utilities) in several states.
In California for example, a CPSR member spoke at a public participation
hearing, and was immediately invited by the Commission to participate
in more official hearings. In addition to testifying in the hearings,
CPSR provided written background material to Commission officials.
In these hearings, CPSR proposed alternatives to CNID that avoid
the privacy problems of CNID, but the telephone companies argued
that those alternatives were not feasible. Unfortunately for them,
it was revealed during the hearings that the alternatives were
quite feasible, and that the telephone company had in fact implemented
some of them already. It became clear that "infeasible"
really meant "unsatisfactory to businesses," and that
the desire of businesses to collect consumer data is the actual
motive for CNID. The hearing officer therefore recommended to
the California PUC that CNID be disallowed in California. The
Commission then decided to allow CNID, but with such severe privacy
safeguards that the telephone companies decided not to offer the
service because under those conditions it wouldn't be profitable
enough for them.
In Oregon, the situation was better: step 6 of the above-described
common pattern was absent. CPSR's participation in the PUC hearings
led to direct discussions with telephone company officials, from
which important compromises and improvements emerged.
Afer testifying in several state PUC hearings, while waiting for
the PUCs to reach their decision, CPSR returned to indirect advocacy,
publishing opinion articles in the popular press to improve public
awareness of the problems of CNID. CPSR also began advising state
legislatures, which had responded to the CNID controversy by considering
laws that would, independent of PUC decisions, require telephone
companies to provide privacy safeguards.
When several of the Public Utilities Commissions CPSR had advised
eventually decided to place strong privacy restrictions on CNID,
telephone companies ran crying to the to the Federal Communications
Commission (FCC) of the U.S. government, arguing that it should
overrule the decisions by the states. CPSR submitted written arguments
to these hearings on several occasions. Unfortunately, the FCC
decided to impose a single rule nationwide -- overruling the state
decisions -- that provides weaker privacy protection. Several
states appealed and requested delays in the starting date for
CNID, and CPSR submitted testimony to the FCC supporting this
The example of CNID shows that advising government policymakers
on technology matters is quite complicated: it can be done in
a variety of ways, at many different levels of government, and
it requires extensive preparation to overcome determined and often
APPENDIX: SITUATIONS IN WHICH CPSR HAS ADVISED POLICYMAKERS
- - Invited to debate before Congressional staffers on SDI in early 1980's. - Asked by House Representatives to review FBI NCIC 2000 proposal in mid-1080's. Wrote report.
- - Solicited and collected e-mail Advice for (newly-elected) President Clinton about the Information Superhighway, and delivered it to his staff in early 1993.
- - Asked by White House office of science and technology policy to write NII report in 1993.
- - The Telecommunications Policy Roundtable/Northeast, of which CPSR is a founding member-organization, met with staff of Senators Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, and Representative Edward Markey in 1995. - Submitted written testimony to FCC hearings on CNID in early to mid-1990s. - Submitted expert testimony in Federal cases having to do with computer crimes, e.g., Operation Sundevil.
- - Invited to offer testimony before the U.S. Academy of Sciences' National Cryptography Policy Committee in 1995.
- - Advised several state public utilities commissions on CNID: California, Washington, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts. - Advised California state legislature on privacy issues and on making govt. info available online.
- - Testified at a CalTrans hearing on privacy implications of automatic vehicle identification for toll collection. - Testified in Virginia state deliberations on uses of social security numbers. - Participated in Washington State Governor's Task Force on Public Information Access Policy. The task force produced a report that is being used to devise legislation.
- - Served on a Citizen's Advisory Board in Washington State that provides the Public Utilities Commission with a public-interest perspective on cases before it.
- - Testified and advised Washington State legislature regarding privacy laws. - Assist with California NetDay: connecting local school districts to the Internet.
- - Invited to testify on issues of privacy for student records before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Education Commitee, 1995-1996.
- - Reviewed Santa Clara county's implementation of data-protection laws and recommended improvements.
- - Invited to participate in Sunnyvale city meetings on future NII policy. - Work with city libraries and governments in various cities around the U.S.to set up local civic computer networks (e.g., the Seattle Community Network).
- - Advised local governments on risks of computerized election-tallying systems. - Serving on Citizens' Telecommunications and Technology Advisory Board for the Seattle (Washington state) City Council.
This page last updated on Oct. 24, 1996 by Matt Ball.
Created before October 2004