the public interest media groups

I agreed today to serve on the dissertation committee of a graduate student

who wants to study the political strategy of the "progressive"

public-interest groups that lobby for changes in federal communications

policy. These groups (the so-called "geektivists")

are concerned about the way the Internet is regulated, legal treatment

of software monopolies, excessive intellectual property rights, and erosion

of privacy. I know them well; I have often been the sole academic at Washington

strategy meetings involving their issues. I encouraged the student’s dissertation,

because I am dissastisfied with the general approach of the progressive

national groups—an approach that derives from Ralph Nader and the

other consumer advocates of the early 1970s. They analyze complex issues

to determine what is in the "public interest"; identify enemies;

"expose" their crimes and misdemeanors; develop a simple, marketable

"message" through public opinion research, and then "mobilize"

popular support by making people angry. I find this approach ethically

dubious, because it isn’t sufficiently democratic (respectful of ordinary

people’s opinions and capacities) or deliberative (willing to recognize

alternative points of view). By making people angry, it often discourages

them or turns them away from politics. Above all, approach tends to fail

when pitted against professional corporate lobbying campaigns. Thus I

think that the proposed dissertation could be useful for activists well

beyond the telecommunications field.