Synergy in Cyberspace

By Audrie Krause, NetAction Founder

As cyber-rights activists, we have something to learn from our offline peers if we hope to see online activism develop into a truly effective organizing strategy. What's needed is a crash course in old-fashioned, low-tech organizing. Simply put, for cyber-rights activists to have an impact on public policy decisions, we will need to take our fingers off the keyboards for a while.

Thanks to the speed and efficiency of the Internet, online activism has emerged as a powerful means of communicating concerns, ideas and strategies. But if online activism alone was effective as a political organizing strategy, the Communications Decency Act (CDA) would never have been enacted. Thanks to the efforts of online activists at Voters Telecommunications Watch (VTW), the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), and other organizations, hundreds of thousands of netizens knew about the CDA prior to its passage as part of the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996. But the urgent email messages from these organizations imploring netizens to contact Congress were not effective in killing the CDA. As a result, cyber-rights activists are now embroiled in a protracted battle to preserve our First Amendment rights on the Internet.

It's a battle we could have avoided had we stepped away from our computers long enough to try a few old-fashioned organizing tactics -- like making phone calls, handing out flyers on street corners, speaking to community groups, organizing rallies, knocking on doors, and building coalitions with other constituencies. In a word, what was missing was outreach.

There is no question that the online community knew that passage of the CDA posed a serious threat to free speech. And cyber-rights activists were highly effective in educating netizens about this threat. But it wasn't until shortly before the legislation was enacted -- and well past the point where there was any real hope of defeating it -- that a real push was made to explain the CDA's threat to the millions of Americans who aren't online.

There are several lessons that cyber-rights activists ought to learn from this. And we need to learn quickly if we hope to be successful on other issues, like encryption, which are now before Congress.

Lesson number one is don't just preach to the converted. Email alerts alone won't do the trick. Even an online petition with 50,000 signatures, which Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) promoted in an effort to defeat Clipper I, is far less likely to get the attention of an elected official than a few dozen phone calls or personal visits from the right people. Identify the people whose phone calls and personal visits can make a difference, call them on the phone, get their commitment to follow up -- and then remember to follow up with them.

Lesson number two is don't just preach in the chapel. Anyone who wants to influence policy -- whether its before Congress, a state Legislature or the local school board -- has got to demonstrate a broad base of support -- through letters, faxes and telephone calls, as well as rallies, demonstrations and personal visits. But it takes more than email to motivate political action. Get invited to speak to the Rotary Club or at your local senior center, talk about it at work (on your lunch break, of course), and tell your neighbor about it the next time you see her walking the dog.

Lesson number three is to take an ecumenical approach. Some cyberspace activists were so narrowly focused on the CDA that they ignored the potential for developing coalitions with other constituencies, such as consumer groups, that opposed the telecommunications legislation for different reasons. The more inclusive we are, the more likely it is we will succeed. This is an important lesson to consider as we head into the next round of the encryption battle. Online activists need to identify and talk to other constituencies who might have a stake in the outcome.

The final lesson is to have faith. There is a powerful synergy waiting to be unleashed when we learn to effectively couple our online activism with traditional community organizing strategies. It's there for us to use to our advantage, and when we finally tap into it, we will become far more effective in achieving our political goals. This is the most important lesson of all for cyber-rights activists.