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Conflicts and Arguments in CPSR

Conflicts and Arguments in CPSR

Conflicts and Arguments in CPSR


Jeff Johnson, former Chair of CPSR

Historically throughout CPSR's existance, certain conflicts and arguments related to the organization's identity and mode of operation have cropped up repeatedly. These issues have arisen both in situations where CPSR's leadership was actively involved in navel-gazing about the future of the organization, and at times when a specific organizational position was being discussed.

Some of these recurring issues have been resolved, sometimes by conscious decision on the part of CPSR's leadership and sometimes by default, i.e., things just worked out a particular way and members eventually acknowledged and accepted it.

For the benefit of newcomers to CPSR and of other organizations that may be facing similar conflicts, I will attempt to describe these issues as I understand them. I should warn readers that the perspectives expressed herein do not constitute an official analysis, they are are simply my own observations.


1. Is CPSR about technical issues or social issues?

This was asked a lot at the beginning, and is still sometimes asked by newcomers to CPSR. The answer, however, has clearly been decided: the combination of the two. CPSR is about the impact of technology on society. It is about social issues that have a technical component, i.e., socio-political issues in which technical competence can make a difference when brought to bear.

CPSR is neither purely a technical organization like IEEE, nor is it a peace and justice organization like Nuclear Freeze groups or Amnesty International. Therefore, CPSR has no position on: gun control, abortion, US intervention in Somalia or Bosnia, O.J. Simpson, etc. This may seem obvious, but it is apparently not obvious to some people who criticize CPSR for not having positions on these topics. Of course, this is not to say that CPSR *members* don't have positions on these topics. Many most certainly do. But if so, they must express those positions through whatever other organzations they belong to.

One situation where this question arose was during the Gulf war, when some activists, Board Members, and Staff wanted CPSR to take a public position against the U.S. attacks on Iraq. After intense debate in the organization, including on the Board, it was decided that while it was quite within CPSR's purview to critique all the hype about high-tech weaponry that occured before, during, and after the brief war, it was not within CPSR's purvue to take a position on whether declaring war on Saddam Hussein's regime was justified.

2. Does CPSR have a position on every issue we work on?

Some people, especially newspaper reporters, assume that if CPSR activists work on an issue, the organization must have a position on that issue. That assumption is false. CPSR's main role is to provide a forum for open, informed discussion of relevant issues. The organization often performs that role without having a position.

Of course, sometimes, simply fostering discussion of an issue is a political act. For example, when I was Chair of the Denver-Boulder chapter of CPSR, I organized a debate on the Strategic Defense Initiative. I had an anti-SDI speaker and needed a pro-SDI speaker. Someone referred me to Martin-Marietta corporation, which had offices in the Denver area. In turning down my request for a pro-SDI speaker, their public relations spokesperson told me: "It is not in our interest for these issues to be discussed."

CPSR's issue areas are often quite broad, so a position is impossible anyway. For example, consider Computers in the Workplace: it makes no sense to be for it or against it.

Sometimes CPSR has developed an organizational position only after working on an issue for a while. Our position on the CNID telephone service is an example. Initially, individual members had positions on CNID but CPSR as an organization did not. After much discussion and debate on the topic, some of it within the organization and some of it facilitated by CPSR but between outside parties, CPSR's leadership came to the conclusion that CNID is a poor solution for its intended purpose (screening unwanted calls) and that better solutions are possible that don't have CNID's privacy problems.

3. Is CPSR run in a top-down or a bottom-up fashion?

For years, there was argument about whether CPSR was driven by the Board and/or Staff (top-down) or by the membership (bottom-up). It was often pointed out that many highly effective public-interest organizations operate in a top-down fashion: members pay dues, and the staff and leadership do good work on the members' behalf. But that didn't jibe with the intent of many of CPSR's founders, who wanted a bottom-up organization, i.e., one that would encourage and empower them -- computer professionals -- to consider the social impact of their work and to get involved in policy issues. In a bottom-up organiztion, members pay *and* do most of the program work, and the staff administers the organization and supports the activities of members.

My sense is that CPSR began as a mainly bottom-up organization, then gradually became more of a top-down organization as it added staff and branch offices, and now (partly as a result of the Washington and Cambridge offices) has returned to being mainly a bottom-up organization.

4. Is CPSR's basic political orientation leftist, progressive, liberal, libertarian, or non-partisaned?

This is an example of an issue that has been resolved more by default -- by people simply accepting the de facto situation -- than by conscious decision.

CPSR was founded by people who tended to be politically leftist or progressive in that they mistrusted or opposed the use of computer technology for military purposes. As the organization grew, both in membership size and in topical purvue, people having a wider variety of political orientations joined. For example, the addition of privacy and civil liberties as an official focus of CPSR brought in many new members who regard themselves as libertarian.

Tension remains between the various political orientations, but it rarely impedes the organization's work. This is partly because people of different political persuasions tend to focus their efforts on different issues, all of which are important.


The following are issues that, I believe, will be debated for as long as CPSR continues to exist.

5. Is CPSR a single-issue organization, or does it cover a range of issues relating technology and society?

With a single-focus organization, it is easier to explain to prospective members, funders, and the press what the organization does and what its resources are spent on. With a multi-focus organization, it is easier to accomodate and empower activist members, who naturally have a broad range of interests.

In some sense, this issue *has* been resolved, because CPSR clearly covers a variety of issues.

However, historically, there has always been and remains a feeling among many CPSR leaders that the organization is most effective when it focuses on one issue. Thus, CPSR has always tended to have one *main* issue, with some number of peripheral issues.

Initially, the main issue was Defense Department funding of Computer Research. Then it shifted to the Strategic Defense Initiative. During the late 1980's, despite good work in many areas, CPSR was known mainly for its work in privacy and civil liberties. And in the Nineties, the main issue is clearly the National Information Infrastructure. Thus, CPSR tends to at least be perceived, if not act, as a single-issue organization.

6. Is CPSR's main role to provide technical expertise to policymakers, or is it to demystify technology for the public?

CPSR has always presented itself as a supporter of highly participatory democracy: getting the public and computer professionals as involved as possible in the policymaking process. Noting that many citizens hesitate to become involved in technology-related policymaking, CPSR as an organization has often argued that a technical education is usually not required in order to understand the issues and contribute effectively to the policymaking process.

The tension results from the fact that while we as an organization espouse these democratic principles, we often present ourselves as technical experts "We understand it, and you don't, so listen to us," which of course is somewhat elitist and anti-democratic. But elitist though this strategy may be, it is clearly effective with policymakers. Herein lies the rub: do we want to be effective but elitist, or do we want to promote an open democratic process and thereby undermine the reputation as technical experts that gets us a seat at the policymaking table?

This is a fence we are destined to walk forevermore.

7. Does CPSR work with or against the establishment?

The issue here is tactical rather than strategic. Should CPSR work within the system, advising authorities -- e.g., government agencies and large corporations -- on how to use technology in more socially resposible ways, or do we act as an uncompromising dissident voice in the computer industry?

We sometimes do work with authorities, as when we wrote the NII report to fulfill a White House request, or when we have helped disseminate government position statements on the Internet, or when we helped telephone companies articulate a position on the FBI's digital telephony proposal. The benefits of doing this are that we are treated as a fellow policymaker. The danger is that we can be co-opted and cornered into positions we don't agree with.

We also sometime act as a dissident organization, as when we wouldn't compromise in our opposition to Clipper or CNID. The benefits of this is that we remain true to our ideals. The danger is that we can be marginalized and ignored, and thereby be rendered ineffective.

Presumeably, CPSR will continue to choose its tactics on a case-by-case basis.

8. How does CPSR publicize its positions?

There are two very different ways an organization can speak out on an issue. One approach is to be analytical, provide deep, fully thought-out analysis, and be very diligent in doing your homework, having evidence and citations to back up whatever you say. Because of its academic beginnings, this is how CPSR activists tended to work in the organization's early years. The advantage of presenting one's arguments this way is that it gains and retains the respect and attention of policymakers. The disadvantage of this approach is that it is often missed or ignored by the press and the public.

The alternative approach is to be loud, inflammatory, and strident in presenting arguments, i.e., provide good "sound bites." This gets the attention of the press and the public. However, an organization that does this too much may find itself no longer invited to the policymakers' table.

For example, as Chair of CPSR, I was once being interviewed by a reporter for a story on CNID. After I had explained CPSR's position on CNID, the reporter played me a tape of a telephone company spokesman saying something derogatory about CPSR. The reporter clearly wanted to goad me into an angry response. When I simply said that the telco spokesman must be unaware that even though CPSR opposed his company's position on CNID, we were helping that same phone company on other issues (e.g., digital telephony), the reporter interrupted me, said "I can see that I'm not going to get a hot sound bite from you," and ended the interview.

Again, I think the trick is to be able to read the situation and pick the right tactic, so this is a conflict that will always be with us.

9. What sort of people are on CPSR's Board of Directors, activists or donors and fundraisers?

Most non-profit organizations, e.g., the local symphony orchestra and most charities, have Boards of Directors consisting mainly of people who have lots of money to donate to the organization and know lots of other rich people. That is how such organizations remain solvent.

CPSR's Board of Directors has historically consisted mainly of people from the activist core of the organization: people who are deeply involved in the program work of the organization, but who don't have enormous amounts of disposable cash to donate. This has always been seen as somewhat of a problem, because the organization has, for much of its history, operated under severe financial constraints.

Therefore, from time to time, there have been attempts to change this: to bring onto the Board more people with big wallets and/or big Roledex's of names of people with money. A couple of slots on the Board were created in the late Eighties for this sort of Board member, but filling those positions has proved difficult. However, these were only attempts to add a few rich Board members. Though there have been occasional calls to radically change the makeup of the Board, there has been no serious effort to do so. A Board composed of committed and knowledgeable activists has too much value to CPSR to give that up completely.

As CPSR's activist core matures and becomes more financially secure, some Board members and former Board members are donating more to CPSR. Still, the organization lacks the millionaires on its Board that even the Palo Alto Community Orchestra has, and probably always will. Furthermore, Board members have shown themselves again and again to be very reluctant to solicit money from their friends and colleagues. So money will probably always remain tight for CPSR.

This page last updated on Oct. 24, 1996 by Matt Ball.

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