|Published by NetAction||Issue No. 88||November 21, 2002|
As a tool for grassroots citizen action, the Internet can't be beat. Email
reaches millions of people in an instant; Web sites make unfiltered information
accessible around the clock and across the globe. At virtually no cost, ordinary
citizens can organize and empower themselves to protest war, protect the environment,
mobilize against all types of oppression and injustice.
That's what's good about Internet activism, and as countless activists have
discovered it can be very good, indeed.
But there's also a down side to Internet activism. Subscribe to an email
discussion list, sign up for an action alert, speak out in a news group or
online forum and your in-box will eventually be flooded with unsolicited commercial
email. The more active you are on the Internet, the more you're targeted by
That's what's bad about Internet activism, and -- again -- countless activists
have experienced this.
But spam is a relatively minor annoyance compared to the truly ugly side
of Internet activism that could emerge now that Congress has passed legislation
to establish a Department of Homeland Security. One provision of the bill
allows the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) to continue development
of the proposed "Total Information Awareness" (TIA) system.
Simply put, TIA is the "Big Brother" of George Orwell's novel "1984."
According to DARPA documents obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information
Center (EPIC), TIA is an all-encompassing surveillance system that will collect
virtually every byte of information that there is to collect about U.S. citizens:
phone records, bank records, medical records, education records, travel records.
There are even plans to establish a biometric identification system.
No one will be safe from electronic snooping if DARPA's project is developed,
but Internet activists and nonprofit organizations with Web sites that criticize
government policies may be especially vulnerable. Virtually every email message,
news group posting, and web site document that travels the information highway
is archived on a server somewhere and that data will also be subject to government
surveillance if TIA is put into place. (If you think I'm exaggerating about
how much information is accessible check for yourself by doing a Web search
of your name, or your organization's name.)
Prior to 9/11 and enactment of the USA Patriot Act people who openly worried
that the government was watching them were often dismissed as being paranoid.
In the current political climate such concerns are not so easy to dismiss.
But as bleak as things seem to be, I'm confident that the threat of mass
electronic surveillance won't silence Internet activism. Too many nonprofit
organizations have discovered how much more effective they can be with the
right technology; too many ordinary citizens have discovered that information
Yes, these are troubling times, but thanks to the Internet thousands of activists
and organizations working for a better world are only a mouse-click away.
So let's use that to our advantage.
If you want to know more about the government's plans for electronic surveillance,
Recently I conducted a very informal survey of my colleagues on the NPTalk
discussion list to determine what they liked about their favorite Web
sites. The survey contained only two questions:
1) What is your favorite web site? (Other then the one operated by your own organization.)
I had no expectations about what sort of responses I'd get, but was surprised
nonetheless: half of the NPTalkers who responded named Google as their favorite
Web site. Granted it was a small and completely unscientific survey, but NPTalk
subscribers are mostly working for or with nonprofit organizations and I expected
more respondents to name a nonprofit Web site as their favorite. But Google
only seemed an odd choice until I saw the responses to the second question
in the survey.
Why did most of the respondents like Google best? It's the only address they
need to remember, it lets them locate everything else, it's reliable, uncluttered
and easy to use.
It's very simplicity, however, runs counter to the conventional wisdom that
"richer" multi-media content is more desirable. Google has a "bare
actual text. Most remarkable is the absence of any advertising on the home
page, since Google relies on ad revenue to stay in business.
Keeping it simple had advantages, however. The page loads instantly and -
with the exception of the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button - the content
is easy to understand. (It took a bit of searching to find the content that
explained the purpose of the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button, but the
explanation itself was very clear.)
There are other advantages to a simple design that are particularly important
for activist and nonprofit Web sites. A simple design enables you to focus
on the content. Also, it enhances inter-operability, which makes your Web
site compatible with a wider range of browsers, and accessible with slow dial-up
modems as well as broadband connections. Simple designs are also more likely
to be accessible by international Internet users and people with disabilities.
Jakob Nielsen put together a list of the Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design in 1996. While that's ancient history in Internet years, his advice is still on target. Among other things, he recommends avoiding frames, bleeding-edge technology, scrolling text and animations.
Additional advice and resources are available in the Web Site mini-trainer section of NetAction's Virtual Activist Training course.
Like a bad penny, the software industry's anti-consumer software licensing
proposal keeps coming back. According to a recent bulletin from the American
Library Association (ALA), amendments made last summer to the Uniform Computer
Information Transaction Act (UCITA) are expected to revive efforts to get
state Legislatures to adopt the proposed law.
NetAction last addressed this issue in September 2000 when we asked the Federal
Trade Commission (FTC) to ensure that consumers who buy software are protected
by the same law that governs other consumer products. In NetAction's comments,
we asked the FTC to ensure that consumer protections be kept "technologically
neutral" in response to continuing efforts by the software industry to
exempt themselves from existing consumer protection laws.
As currently proposed, UCITA protects the interests of software vendors at
the expense of consumers, libraries and schools, and businesses. Typically,
consumer protection laws require vendors to disclose the terms of their licenses
or warrantees prior to the sale. UCITA would let software vendors enforce
the terms of licenses that aren't revealed until after the software is purchased,
as well as terms that are changed by the vendor after the purchaser has agreed
to them. Software companies would also be able to remotely shut down software
and prohibit reverse engineering aimed at uncovering security holes.
The ALA has detailed
information on UCITA and the status of industry efforts to enact it.
, a coalition of consumer and other organizations and businesses, also has information on UCITA.
A comprehensive guide to online fundraising is available from Handspring.org (formerly eGrants.org). The PDF document can be downloaded.
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