NetAction Notes

Published by NetAction Issue No. 88 November 21, 2002
Repost where appropriate. See copyright information at end of message.


Internet Activism: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Working With Web Sites
Back to Shrink-Wrap
Online Fundraising Resource
About NetAction Notes

Internet Activism: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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 spammers.

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 is empowerment.

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, see:

EPIC's TIA page
ACLU's Cyber-Liberties page
CDT's Government Surveillance page

Working With Web Sites

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.)
2) Why?

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 bones" home page without graphics or javascript, and with very little 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.

Back to Shrink-Wrap

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.

Online Fundraising Resource

A comprehensive guide to online fundraising is available from (formerly The PDF document can be downloaded.

About NetAction Notes

NetAction Notes is a free electronic newsletter, published by NetAction. NetAction is a California-based non-profit organization dedicated to promoting use of the Internet for grassroots citizen action, and to educating the public, policy makers, and the media about technology policy issues.

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