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CPSR History Up To 1994 (Narrative)

Working Groups
Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility

History Up To 1994

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.

A consensus formed gradually on a number of issues, and in June 1982, a public organizational meeting was held at which time 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 status as a 501(c)3 organization by the 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. CPSR hired its first executive director, Gary Chapman, in January 1985.

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.

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 new 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 soon grew to have a full-time staff of three.

In 1986 grassroots membership started a small discussion group in Palo Alto, California. It became The Workplace Project and soon began publishing a national newsletter on the issues raised by the introduction of computers into the workplace. In particular, the Workplace Project 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.

In early 1991, Gary Chapman moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to become 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 believes that it is important to ensure that the network will provide widespread access to network technology at an affordable cost and that it serves 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.

In June 1994, the Washington office of CPSR was reorganized as an independent entity called the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a joint project of CPSR and the Fund for Constitutional Government. The main reasons for the change were the need to give our Washington staff greater autonomy, to increase our organizational efficiency, and to expand our base of support with respect to privacy issues.

At the end of 1994, John Romkey, a CPSR supporter from Cambridge, Massachusetts, made a large, one-time donation consisting of 5,000 shares of FTP Software, a company he cofounded in the 1980s.

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Archived CPSR Information
Created before October 2004

International Chapters -

> Canada
> Japan
> Peru
> Spain

USA Chapters -

> Chicago, IL
> Pittsburgh, PA
> San Francisco Bay Area
> Seattle, WA
Why did you join CPSR?

The need for CPSR's activities has never been greater.