NetAction Notes

Published by NetAction Issue No. 93 July 3, 2003
Repost where appropriate. See copyright information at end of message.


Internet Organizing Moves On Innovation
Speech and Spam
About NetAction Notes

Internet Organizing Moves On Innovation

If I had to name just one organization that has demonstrated the Internet's potential as a tool for grassroots citizen action, without doubt that organization would be Founded in 1998 around a single issue -- opposition to the Republican-led effort to impeach Democratic President Bill Clinton -- has subsequently evolved into a powerful left-of-center advocacy group with more than 1.4 million members.

In recent months, has distributed action alerts urging supporters to voice their concerns about the war in Iraq, media concentration, the economy and tax policy.

But it is's most recent effort to mobilize Democratic voters for the 2004 presidential election that has has taken Internet activism to a new level of innovation. On June 24-25, 2003, MoveOn's Political Action Committee (PAC) conducted a "virtual primary" during which nearly a third of a million members cast votes for their favorite candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Although no candidate received enough votes to win the PAC's endorsement and financial support, the cyber-vote appears to have mobilized tens of thousands of Democratic voters to get involved in the presidential election.

According to's report, 317,647 members voted during the 48-hour period when the virtual polls were open -- more than the combined number of voters in the New Hampshire Democratic primary and the Iowa caucuses.

Of those who participated, 77,192 gave permission to share their contact information with their favored candidate, 54,370 said they would volunteer for a campaign, and 49,132 pledged an estimated $1.75 million in financial support for Democratic candidates.

There is, of course, no guarantee that all the cyber-voters will follow through on their pledges. But it can be considered an effective mobilization strategy if even a fraction of those who voted are inspired to get involved.

Because voters didn't appear in person and provide identification as they would have in a regular election, the potential for multiple votes and other types of fraud was a significant concern. applied technology to address this. Voting was limited to one vote per email address and steps were taken to prevent one person from voting under multiple email addresses. In addition, the results were screened to determine whether multiple votes were submitted through a single computer, and/or whether a large number of votes came from a particular domain. also took steps to verify the accuracy of the results by having an independent polling firm conduct a follow up phone survey of participants. The results of the phone survey were similar to the results of the virtual vote.

As a nonpartisan organization, NetAction does not advocate for any particular candidate or political party. We are highlighting's virtual primary in this issue of NetAction Notes because it illustrates an innovative approach to mobilizing grassroots citizen action. Nonpartisan organizations may find online voting strategies useful for other purposes.

For example, a membership organization that holds an annual meeting to elect its directors may allow members to vote online. The technology that used to verify the integrity of its election could prove useful in ensuring that only those who are eligible to vote can do so.

Cyber-voting might also be a useful tool for advocacy organizations seeking to influence public policy. For example, it may be easier to persuade lawmakers to vote in favor of a bill that powerful corporate lobbyists oppose if an online vote shows that a majority of the constituents within their district support the legislation.

Speech and Spam

On the subject of spam, there is good news and bad news for Internet activists who rely on email.

The good news is that the California Supreme Court recently decided that mass email from a disgruntled former Intel employee is protected speech. The Supreme Court overturned earlier rulings that supported Intel's assertion that the former worker, Kourosh Kenneth Hamidi, was trespassing when he sent email critical of Intel's employment practices to about 30,000 of the company's employees.

According to the news reports of the ruling, legal experts have differing opinions regarding the free speech implications of the ruling, and some worry that it will benefit spammers. But Internet activists clearly benefit from the Court's comparison of Hamidi's actions to a protester holding a sign outside a corporation's offices.

The June 30, 2003 Supreme Court ruling in the case is currently posted with other recent decisions, but will be moved to the Court's archive page after 60 days. Additional information is on Hamidi's web site.

The bad news is that experts on the subject predict that the truly objectionable unsolicited commercial messages that everyone agrees are spam will soon account for half of all email messages traveling the Internet, and policy makers still don't know what to do about it.

While that's bad news for anyone whose in-box is regularly flooded with spam, it's especially bad for online activists because some of the "solutions" that are out there now make it more difficult for organizations that send out action alerts or electronic newsletters. Internet activists should be especially concerned about anti-spam "solutions" that put Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in control.

One "solution" that has made many list-owners unhappy is the so-called "challenge-response" approach that requires email senders to verify their authenticity before a message is accepted by the recipient's server. Although "challenge-response" technology has been in use for some time, it wasn't discussed much until Earthlink announced that it would make the technology available to its 5 million subscribers.

Soon after Earthlink's announcement, Dave Farber, who manages the highly-regarded IP discussion list, warned the Earthlink users on his 25,000-subscriber list that, "If I start getting a flood of challenges from earthlink ipers that require my response I will most likely declare them SPAM and you will stop receiving IP mail."

Lauren Weinstein, co-founder of People for Internet Responsibility states flatly in the PFIR User Guidelines that "attempts to register from e-mail addresses using 'challenge-response' anti-spam systems will be unsuccessful -- the manual administrative burden is simply too great."

An even more disturbing practice that some ISPs have adopted is the wholesale rejection of all email from all domains hosted by ISPs that have been placed on "blacklists" by what can only be described as overly-zealous anti-spam vigilantes. In some cases, this approach has resulted in the rejection of millions of legitimate email messages from thousands of valid domains -- simply because an ISP didn't act fast enough to shut down the account of a spammer who sent mail through their server.

These anti-spam vigilantes don't notify owners that their domains have been "blacklisted," so users sending email through "blacklisted" domains may never know that their email is being rejected. Similarly, the ISPs that reject email from "blacklisted" domains don't tell their customers what they're doing, so their customers may never know that legitimate email addressed to them was rejected.

In NetAction Notes No. 89 we discussed email filtering software as a tool for reducing the flow of spam. Because users can control what gets filtered, spam filters are preferable until policy makers can come up with an industry-wide solution. Individual users -- not the ISPs that serve them -- should be deciding what email to reject as spam.

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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