There's little question that plenty of people are annoyed at how
difficult it is to rip movies from legally purchased DVDs into formats
readable by handheld devices or media players. The lack of consistency in
document formats is an ongoing headache for anyone who receives files
that are only readable with certain software. Information rights management
has become enough of a frustration that a group has formed specifically to
deal with the problem head on. GeekPAC is a political action
committee made up of volunteers who are taking their complaints straight to
Last year California Assemblyman Mark Leno authored AB
1668, a bill designed to encourage the state to adopt the Open Document
Format as the standard format for government documents. Not
surprisingly, Microsoft came out against the bill and it was eventually
struck down in committee. CollabNet Community Manager and longtime FOSS
supporter John Mark Walker was angry. Realizing that the open source
community had no voice during the hearings and no way to fight back against
the opposition's lobbyists, Walker decided to mobilize support from within
the ranks of the FOSS community and let them do what they do best —
rally behind a cause and prove once again that there's strength in
numbers. So he founded GeekPAC.
GeekPAC's goal is to pull together enough funding — a
mere $2,200 — to file the necessary paperwork to be formally
recognized by the Federal Elections Committee as a Political Action
Committee (PAC). Then the group will locate politicians or candidates in
the House and Senate who support hot-button technology issues like
copyright reform and net neutrality. Once identified, GeekPAC will help
support their campaigns and lobby together for change.
"If all we do is fund some campaigns, create a few attack ads, and do
the occasional lobbying, I'll be pretty disappointed," says Walker. "The
real goal here is to educate people as to why they should care. Frankly,
those of us who care about our rights in the information age have done a
really poor job of communicating the importance or relevance."
Indeed, Walker suggests that ambiguous verbiage and a lack of
communication with people outside the tech industry has been the biggest
hindrance to effecting large-scale change. "One of the problems is that we
insist on using terms like 'digital rights,' the usage of which basically
leaves out a large percentage of the population. Most people don't know
what that means, and they assume that digital doesn't include them, because
they don't work in the tech industry and have little contact with people
who do. So lots of digerati swing around their proverbial phalli and talk
'digital rights' this and 'DRM' that, and it becomes a kind of high-tech
circle jerk that is constraining and ultimately self-limiting."
A better approach, he says, would be to frame these important issues as
"information rights." Once people realize that the bills politicians are
voting on aren't about obscure concepts but rather affect human rights at a
basic level, Walker is confident GeekPAC will make great strides toward
changing minds at the national level.
"It's really about the free flow of information and letting free
markets do their job. Once you start there, it's a quick hop and a skip
down the path of the founding principles of this great country," explains
Walker. He goes on to note that these issues affect people at every
socio-economic level, from patents that limit free market trade, to
"information restrictions that affect our ability to adequately educate the
Walker asserts that without a total overhaul of the United States patent
and copyright laws, the information divide will never narrow, and
ultimately lead to larger problems down the road. "It's really about
education, innovation, and reducing the bar to entry so that America can
remain competitive in the 21st century."
One of the overriding reasons Walker chose to launch GeekPAC now is
because this is an important election year and political issues are on the
minds of many. Though he acknowledges people have been discussing these
topics for years, talking just isn't enough.
"In the 10 years that have passed since the DMCA, we still haven't been
able to mount a credible reform effort, and countless horrible things have
taken place on our watch that co-opt our so-called inalienable rights. We
must do more, and I can't think of a better time to do more than an
election year," he says.
GeekPAC is taking a multi-faceted approach to locating politicians to
support. The group's supporters and volunteers are encouraged to recommend
candidates who they know believe in GeekPAC's goals and
direction. Politicians can also contact the group directly and asked to be
considered for backing from GeekPAC. Once chosen, candidates are asked to
sign a simple pledge promising
to "protect my constituents' fair use rights to information [and] support
the use of open standards in government for the storage and archiving of
Walker says GeekPAC is most interested in helping candidates who take a
strong stance on open standards and open access, copyright reform, patent
reform, and net neutrality. "Obviously, we'll be most enthusiastic about
candidates who support all of those, but we will help campaign for
candidates who support at least one of those items."
The name GeekPAC may ring a bell for those who have been around the FOSS
community for a while. A similar group was formed more than five years ago
but never quite got off the ground. Though the two organizations don't
share any common members, they do have the same goals — and an
affection for the domain name. Before GeekPAC morphed into its current
state, it was known as BytesFree — a similar group, but without the
political slant. Walker says he originally planned to stay with that name,
until he learned that the geek-pac.org domain was available, and then
everything fell into place.
Walker formally launched GeekPAC at last week's LinuxWorld Expo by
hosting a Birds of a Feather get-together at the end of a long day of
sessions. While current and would-be volunteers strategized and planned,
Walker took a few minutes to share the group's vision with notable
columnist and FOSS supporter Doc Searls.
Though GeekPAC's premise is strong, not everyone is convinced of its
viability. LinuxWorld community blogger Don Marti says
the idea is likely to fail, in part, because of a poor choice of names. He
claims the inclusion of the term "geek" is insulting and suggests it
doesn't relay the true goals of the group.
"Creative Commons is a great name. Electronic Frontier Foundation is
pretty good," Marti suggests. "You have to get in some words that imply
that the people in the organization actually make something useful and that
the organization's goals are public goods. Network Growth and Productivity
Marti also notes that GeekPAC should include singers, podcasters, and
other sub-groups affected by information rights. Though the underlying
commonality among the members of GeekPAC is an understanding of how these
issues impact the FOSS community, Marti says that's not enough of a reason
to form a splinter group of nothing but techies.
"There's a community that already exists around these issues — why
split off the subset of EFF supporters who happen to be into free
software?" asks Marti. "Of course EFF itself can't be involved because
they're tax-exempt, but the target is clearly the same people, and their
friends and colleagues. A 'free software users for DMCA reform' group would
be like 'cat owners for a balanced budget'."
At the end of the day, it won't be the group's name or membership
demographic that decides GeekPAC's success. Walker says it will be "When
politicians and candidates start referencing us by name because our
influence is large enough to matter."
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