NetAction Notes

Published by NetAction Issue No. 5 October 10, 1996
Repost where appropriate. See copyright information at end of message.

Taking Technology To The Street

Last week NetAction sponsored a week-long experiment in making Internet technology more accessible. With the help of many volunteers, we literally took the Internet to the street. The unique event brought together people with technical expertise and non-profit groups focused on creating access to technology, teaching computer skills and/or advocating on technology policy. This all-volunteer effort would be easy for Internet activists to duplicate in other communities where there is interest in promoting more widespread access to technology and/or building coalitions around technology policy.

For six days, volunteers staffed a storefront kiosk in San Francisco's Civic Center area that offered residents and visitors free demonstrations of the Internet and the opportunity for a hands-on lesson in accessing the World Wide Web, E-mail and news groups. By week's end, about 100 people had visited the kiosk, which was staffed from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily by a total of 26 volunteers. In addition to NetAction, 17 organizations and businesses participated as co-sponsors.

While some visitors were already online and came with very specific questions, others had never operated a computer. Many visitors stayed for an hour or more, and had a real hands-on lesson in accessing the Internet. Many of the volunteers offered to help again if NetAction organizes another demo, which I certainly hope to do.

The experience has me convinced that public demonstrations in locations with significant pedestrian traffic are a viable means of promoting access to information technology. The event also helped promote effective citizen action by linking people who have technical skills with organizations in the community that provide information technology access, training, and/or policy advocacy. Publicity about the Internet demo helped raise public awareness of the many organizations and businesses that participated, and the event provided a positive and meaningful volunteer experience for those who participated.

Internet technology was put to use in organizing the event. A majority of the volunteers who staffed the demo were recruited by announcements sent to E-mail lists and posted on web sites. The event was publicized on the web as well as through more traditional media. Activists interested in organizing similar events in other communities are welcome to contact me for further advice at: .

The Internet demo served serveral purposes:

The non-profit co-sponsors included:

Co-sponsoring businesses included:

Further Thoughts on Airport Security and Passenger Privacy

In NetAction Notes No. 4, I wrote that:

Privacy advocates both on and off the Net have expressed outrage over the Clinton Administration's plan to create computer files on airline passengers in order to help identify "potential terrorists" and other "suspicious individuals." But there has been much less said about the equally outrageous demand by some airlines that passengers show a photo ID before boarding.

I appears that I didn't say enough about why I believe the ID requirement is outrageous. I received about a half dozen messages from people who didn't understand why this requirement would trouble me. While a couple of the writers simply disagreed with me, others pointed out -- accurately -- that I didn't make a strong enough case for my position. Consequently, I am revisiting this issue with some further thoughts of my own, along with an eloquent statement on the subject by Leonard Fiorilli of Amherst, MA. Fiorille is an RPI graduate student and an intern with the Loka Institute, which an organization dedicated to democratising science and technology policy decisionmaking. His comments are quoted with his permission.

First, from my perspective, the basis for concern about the requirement to present an ID before boarding a domestic airline flight is that it is a step down the road that leads to national ID cards, government intrusion into our everyday lives, and other manifestations of Big Brother. It's effectively requiring an internal passport for travel within one's own country.

Presumably, customers who have purchased their airline tickets with checks or credit cards have already provided the necessary ID to prove that they are the valid check or credit card holder, so requiring an ID before boarding is not at all similar to a merchant's requirement that a customer provide ID in order to cash a check or use a credit card.

What it is similar to is a requirement that you provide an ID before crossing the border from California to Oregon, or before boarding a train headed from New York to Washington, D.C. In a free society, citizens should not have to "check in" with anyone before they take a trip or move. In a totalitarian society, this is precisely what citizens must do.

In addition to being a step down the road to totalitarianism, there is the fact that the FAA directive itself is being kept secret. Supposedly, the FAA has issued a directive to the airlines that requires them to demand an ID. At least, that's what the airlines are telling passengers. But the FAA has refused to make the directive public. This raises questions about what's really going on. And of course some people have speculated that the airlines are really concerned about the resale or transfer of low-cost tickets because it cuts into their profits. If that's the case, then I would object to the authority of the federal government being used for the financial benefit of a private business.

Terrorism is a reality of modern life, but it is only one of many threats to our safety and security. True security is only an illusion, and ID checks aren't going to stop terrorists. The question we should be asking ourselves is how much of our individual freedom and privacy are we willing to give up in order to nuture the illusion that we can travel safe from terrorism?

Leonard Fiorilli took a somewhat more philosophical approach to this issue in his comments to a colleague, which are quoted below:

"So why is privacy so important? People have argued that privacy is essential for democracy and civil justice. In a democracy, privacy protects individuals from coercion. For this reason, the 'secret ballot' is guaranteed. Privacy is a necessary ingredient for effective civil justice. It helps protect against prejudice and re-victimization. Few argue against the withholding of criminal records of minorities and the withholding of the identities of rape victims. In these cases, privacy protects.

"But in the instance of an airline, electronic database, genetic database, or any of the other technology related privacy infringement issues, the above arguments may be unsatisfactory. What does democracy or civil justice have to do with protecting me from terrorists on a plane 10,000 feet in the air? Some would suggest that privacy infringement is necessary to maintain civil justice in the latter instance.

"In general, then, why is privacy so important? Because, in an age of increasing vulnerability, PRIVACY acts as our security cushion. Most opponents of privacy regulations support themselves on the false premise that if someone is not being hurt (coerced, prejudiced, re-victimized, robbed, denied access, etc), then privacy does not matter. The issue for privacy advocates, however, is not whether we ARE BEING violated, it's whether we CAN BE violated. Privacy is PREVENTATIVE.

"Why should we need to enter an airplane anonymously? Why should we worry about databases and record keeping if we have nothing to hide? Why should we resist the dissemination of our genetic information? It's all for our own good anyway.

"In most cases, and most certainly in the case of genetic information, the possible benefits of these "justified privacy violations" do not outweigh the actual or potential consequences. How much protection can one get from knowing who, instead of what, is on an airplane?

"Currently, the degree to which my life is private is the degree to which I have chosen to protect myself from others. By surrendering my right to privacy, I surrender my right to ensure my own protection. I am left, instead, with the need to have others, like the federal government, protect me. If we (by we I mean everyone who has not contributed a voice to the privacy debate) allow business, government, the military, and the civil authorities to institutionalize privacy violations, we lose that cushion and face the old hard floor of vulnerability."

Copyright 1996 by NetAction. All rights reserved. Material may be reposted or reproduced for non-commercial use provided NetAction is cited as the source.

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