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2003 Annual Appeal Letter

Working Groups
Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility

December 2003

Dear Friend of CPSR,

I'm writing because I am deeply alarmed. Having spent my entire career applying information technology to human needs, I am very worried about the social, legal, and regulatory trends that are rapidly changing the Internet. This year I volunteered to serve as CPSR's president in the hope of making CPSR an even stronger and more effective voice for the public interest in Internet policy. I'm writing because we need your help to do that.

The Internet once had such promise!

Internet utopianism has been on hard times since the boom and bust of Internet Commerce. But as we get past the disillusionment that follows a gold rush, I'm hoping that more and more people will come to see the Internet as neither more nor less than an extremely important tool in the ongoing story of human progress.

But the story is still being written, and it's hard not to feel a bit discouraged. Whatever has become of our wonderful geeky pre-millennial Internet? Words are inadequate, but if you're like me you might have some rather arcane ones on your mind these days: DMCA, MPAA, Diebold, CANSPAM, WSIS, PATRIOT, or perhaps VOIP and FCC. Hiding behind the jargon are a host of vital public policy issues that a lot of people would like to see addressed only in closed rooms, by government and industry alone. It's CPSR's job to open the doors of those rooms, and help provide a public interest voice on the vital issues of the information age.

As recently as a decade ago, it was still possible to believe that the Internet would, by its very nature, work to cure many of the world's ills. Less than five years ago, it was still possible to believe that the Internet would, by its very nature, be the most fabulous engine of wealth creation the world has ever known. Today, it is disturbingly easy to believe that, by its very nature, the Internet will be the decisive tool in international cooperation against terrorism. Some people even think the Internet, by its very nature, can improve the way elections work in a democracy. These simplistic beliefs have an opportunity, in today's political climate, to do enormous damage.

As Larry Lessig has pointed out, the Internet's "essential nature" is made of code, which is highly fluid, and can change radically and quickly. The Internet provides an incredibly powerful set of tools, which can build a variety of structures. Those structures can also be used to rig elections, or to strip us of our last vestiges of privacy and autonomy.

The information society in general, and CPSR in particular, is at a crucial historical crossroads. Public policies and attitudes (not to mention laws and regulations) on such issues as privacy and spam are being shaped today, and will have enormous consequences for decades to come. It was this confluence of technological and political events that led me to seek the CPSR presidency, and that now lead me to ask for your help.

CPSR's Impact Is Remarkable!

I am constantly meeting people who are surprised to learn how small an organization CPSR actually is, given our visibility and impact in policy circles. The fact is that there aren't really that many people in the world who share both deep insights in information technology and a passion for social activism in pursuit of a better world. CPSR provides the best vehicle I know of for people like us to have a real impact on the kind of world our technology is building.

On the other hand, even long-term CPSR members are often unaware of just how much our organization does each year. Perhaps we're too averse to tooting our own horn, but mostly I think it's because our issues and activities are diverse and often dauntingly complex, and our activities are globally distributed. No single CPSR member can be an expert on all our issues, but the sum effect of dozens of activists is surprisingly powerful. We talk with policymakers, we run educational events, we write position papers to explain highly complex issues in non-technical terms, and we work together to stay informed and affect public discourse.

Rather than make this letter ridiculously long, I'm not going to try to tell you everything CPSR has done in 2003. A detailed report may be found at:

Instead, I'll just describe a few things worth highlighting:

  • In 2003, CPSR became a UN-certified NGO (Non-Governmental Organization). This means that our activists, working on behalf of CPSR, can have standing to take part in United Nations activities not open to the general public.

  • Several CPSR activists have been major participants in the UN's WSIS (World Summit on the Information Society), the first major effort to frame international norms for information policy. (CPSR's "One Planet, One Net" statement was a pioneering vision of electronic communication as a fundamental human right.)

  • CPSR's internationalization proceeded at a breakneck pace, with chapters growing more active around the world. (This brings at least as many short term problems as long term prospects, as I'll mention below.)

  • Our Annual Meeting in Seattle was the usual stimulating and thoughtful event, thanks to the efforts of our Seattle activists. We spent the weekend thinking globally about issues of information regulation and equal access, as seen through the lenses of people acting locally on issues of cable TV regulation in Washington state. The more such meetings we have, the more good we can do, I have no doubt.

  • With enthusiasm from our international membership, we decided to have next year's major conference outside of the U.S. for the first time; we will gather in Barcelona, Spain at the end of the Internet Society's annual conference, in a bid to stimulate more activity and membership in Europe and to try to gain members from the ISOC crowd.

  • And, as always, the majority of CPSR events were locally-focused and activist-driven. This year, the biggest issues for our local chapters seem to have been electronic voting technology and electronic privacy, with a host of local events centered around these two topics.
  • Unfortunately, we need to do a lot more. Today, we stand in urgent need of more activism, more members, more communication among the members, and, yes, more money. I see six urgent tasks on CPSR's agenda for the next few years: we need to monitor voting, monitor the monitors, internationalize, reorganize, raise money, and amplify each other's efforts.

    Monitor Voting

    There's a big election coming up in the U.S. in 2004, but frankly there's always a big election coming up somewhere. How do we keep elections honest? Historically, a major part of that responsibility has fallen to the election judges or poll watchers. Around the world, independent monitoring of elections is seen as key to the integrity of the democratic process. But how can the average election judge try to monitor computerized election machines connected to the Internet?

    CPSR needs to consider developing and distributing a set of extremely clear educational materials aimed squarely at election monitors worldwide. We have to start with today's reality and educate from that starting point, both to help poll watchers do their jobs today and to add their voices to future demands for safer technologies. And of course, as information professionals, we can and should volunteer as election watchers in our own communities wherever appropriate.

    Monitor the Monitors

    Who is watching the watchers? CPSR must continue its long tradition of shedding public light on the march of electronic surveillance and the steady erosion of privacy. "Fighting terrorism" is a disturbingly convenient excuse for all manner of decisions, small and large, that are quietly being made with little public input and little concern for preventing abuses. We cannot possibly have too many local events to raise attention to these issues.


    Our non-U.S. chapters are our most dynamic and fastest-growing right now. At first glance it might seem like we don't need to do anything special to internationalize; after all, chapters are forming and thriving around the world. Unfortunately it isn't that simple: international chapters are getting their work done, to some extent, in spite of the historical legacy of a US-centric organization, and they're not shy about pointing out the problems, which are as deeply-rooted as the fact that we call our central office the "national office" and as unfair as the fact that this central office collects the same fees from members in developing countries as in the U.S. If we're not going to fly apart from centrifugal force, internationalization demands decentralization and restructuring, which leads me to...


    While CPSR struggles with the complexity of internationalization, it is hindered by an outdated and inefficient organizational structure. Accounting procedures in place are those of a much simpler organization, which makes it difficult to document the way some of our program money is spent. While there have been no improprieties in our activities, we must have a system in place that is simple, frictionless, and transparent, so that it will stand up to any scrutiny, from within and without.

    Fortunately, this year -- thanks to the tireless efforts of our outgoing president, Coralee Whitcomb, and others -- we received a highly unusual one-time grant from the Ford Foundation, focused on organizational development and transformation. With these resources, we are now embarked on a comprehensive review and audit of our organization. Within a few months, we hope to have instituted better procedures and controls by which activists spread around the world can interact directly with our financial processes. It is my hope to make CPSR's finances and operations not just a formally open book, which they are now, but also a highly transparent one that can easily be understood by any member.

    The restructuring that the Ford grant enables, however, is only a first step, and by itself it can't carry us all the way to where we need to be. There have been many productive discussions recently -- on the cpsr-activists list, on the board list, and in coffee shops around the world -- about the longer term strategic transformation of our organization. We have heard voices advocating a smaller Board, more oriented to oversight than activism, supplemented by a larger Activist Council, to involve more activists on a day-to-day level through microgrants and other programs. These discussions are ongoing, and I urge you to weigh in with your thoughts and ideas.

    Raise Money

    Yes, we ask you for money every year, as do plenty of other worthy organizations. But this year is particularly critical for CPSR. Our restructuring cannot succeed without more money. In the short term, both our restructuring and our internationalization efforts increase costs more rapidly than income, in an era of shrinking budgets.

    If you believe, as I do, that we are entering a crucial period during which information policy is going to be established for many years to come, this is absolutely the right time for you to dig as deep as you can to make a donation to CPSR. In the next few years, WSIS and the UN may establish the institutions that will govern our grandchildren's Internet. In the United States, the PATRIOT act will either get strengthened or weakened, and electronic voting mechanisms will be implemented with either stronger or weaker safeguards, which may or may not preserve democracy.

    If you care about these things, please help us raise the money we need, not just to survive in an international era, but to empower activists worldwide at the crucial moment in the history of information technology and human society.

    Amplify Each Other

    The essence of CPSR's program is activist amplification. We work on extremely complex issues, issues where progressive social policy are intertwined with innumerable technical details. We can't all know all the details about all the issues. The prospect of trying to know it all is overwhelming enough to make a person want to open a beer and turn on the television. Fortunately, we don't each need a deep understanding of all the issues to have a positive impact.

    Instead, we continue to build our collaborative community of activists online who talk together, identify like-minded people and help promote their writing, their speaking, and their initiatives. Some of us generate ideas, some of us contribute deep analysis, some of us provide technical support for our online presence, and some of us lead policy initiatives informed by the contributions of the rest. (For my part, I'm focusing nowadays on figuring out how to make that kind of "organization" more productive.)

    We have a few mechanisms to amplify each other, but the embarrassing fact is that CPSR is actually behind the curve technologically in the way we do these things. In the months to come, we will be trying to convert the CPSR web site into a more dynamic and collaborative resource (while of course retaining its current value as a reference resource). Soon we will be supplementing our current web and mailing list resources with wikis, blogs, and instant messaging. There are a lot of things to do, and I urge you to pick a small piece of it and make it your own.

    Please Help!

    First, send money!

    Please join or renew your membership today, and make an extra donation if you possibly can. You can use the secure online form at

    Remember that student memberships are only $20, which makes them affordable and potentially mind-expanding gifts for all the bright young technogeeks in your life!

    Next, tell your friends. If half of our members can each recruit two new members, we'd not only double our resources, but given the way we amplify each other, I bet we'd at least quintuple our impact.

    Finally, get involved. Join one of our working groups or mailing lists on a topic you care about, help with the wiki, organize a local event, come to the Barcelona conference -- or use CPSR as a source of activism for your ongoing projects if you have them.

    In closing, I apologize for the length of this letter, but if you've read this far you can tell that I'm both excited and impassioned about CPSR in 2004 and beyond. Please do whatever you can to help us shape an Information Society that doesn't merely empower companies to make money, but also, most importantly, empowers individuals to live better, freer, and happier lives.

    Wishing you a joyous and healthy holiday season,

    Nathaniel S. Borenstein, Ph.D.
    President, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility

    Postscript: A Word of Thanks

    As CPSR's new president, I cannot imagine anything more useful than to have a newly-obtained organizational development grant arrive just in time for my presidency. Beyond the gratitude we all feel towards the Ford Foundation, I want to express my gratitude to all of the CPSR team who worked to develop that grant. Most especially, however, I want to thank our previous president, Coralee Whitcomb, whose final major act in office was to lead and pull together that team. To come into a new organization with big ideas is one thing: to actually have some resources allocated for the task is an incredible luxury. Coralee's long, devoted, and excellent years of service deserve the gratitude of all of us who hold in our minds a picture of the kind of society that information technology might yet help us build. Thanks, Coralee. -- Nathaniel

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