The Future of Network Politics

From The Network Observer, Vol. I, no. 12, December, 1994

Distributed by the Red Rock Eater News Service (

In the December 1994 issue of Wired (page 121) there appears an ad for something called The Progress and Freedom Foundation. Under the headline "Cyberspace: It's Nobody's Highway", this advertisement announces the availability of a "Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age". Small type at the bottom informs us that this document ...

... emerged from an August 23-24 conference in Atlanta, Georgia. Participants included Jerry Berman, Esther Dyson, John Gage, George Gilder, Jay Keyworth, Lewis Perelman, Michael Rothschild and Alvin Toffler. Major support for the conference was provided by BELLSouth and the Competitive Long Distance Coalition. Additional support was provided by Agorics Enterprises, Inc., AT&T;, Cox Enterprises, J.L. Dearlove and Affiliates, Forbes, Scientific Atlanta, Video Tape Associates and Wired. Creative Consulting and Ad Production by J.L. Dearlove & Affiliates, Chicago, IL.

Regarding the Magna Carta itself, it provides the e-mail address and some phone numbers,

or, if you must, cross your fingers and send POM to 1250 H St. NW, Suite 550 Washington, DC 20005.

Listen to the language. If you must? It's as though they're trying to talk jive to ingratiate themselves with the kids on the street. They don't even have a home page.

So who are these folks? The ad says that:

The Progress & Freedom Foundation believes cyberspace is a frontier, not a government project.

We can learn a little more by turning to journalistic accounts. For example, in the 12/12/94 Wall Street Journal's article on Republican plans for the Food and Drug Administration (page A16), we read the following:

In September, Rep. [Newt] Gingrich [incoming Speaker of the House] told a biotechnology trade group that he was launching a project to design a replacement for the FDA. Leading the effort is the Progress and Freedom Foundation, whose head, Jeffrey Eisenach, formerly ran Gopac, Mr. Gingrich's political action committee. Without apology, Mr. Eisenach acknowledges that drug companies are financial contributors to the foundation, and notes that drug companies will be involved in the project. And he dismisses suggestions that drug-company involvement could taint the results. "So I should go to Ralph Nader and do it?" he says. "That's silly".

So the Progress and Freedom Foundation is active on more than just telecommunications issues. But it is not just an industry lobbying organization. In particular, the connection to Gopac is not at all coincidental. The purpose of Gopac has been to train conservative Republican candidates in the particularly aggressive style of politicking that Mr. Gingrich pioneered during his early days in Congress, and the Progress and Freedom Foundation may contribute to a generalization of this model.

[By 1994] "Newt World" was now far-flung, from GOPAC to the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee; the Friends of Newt Gingrich campaign committee; a weekly TV show on the conservative cable TV network, National Empowerment Television, and a think tank called the Progress and Freedom Foundation.

Its messages were coordinated with talk-show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and with Christian Coalition groups. [...]

"The goal of this project is simple", Jeffrey A. Eisenach, director of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, wrote in a fund-raising letter. "To train, by April, 1996, 200,000-plus citizens into a model for replacing the welfare state and reforming our government." (LA Times 12/19/94, page A31)

What can we expect from this rising army? The Gopac's record provides some evidence. Much has been written about the tactics that Gopac suggested to its candidates. An article about Gopac leader Joe Gaylord (Wall Street Journal, 8 December 1994, page A18), for example, says:

Mr. Gaylord is one of the brains behind Gopac ... . [He] wrote its how-to textbook, which urges challengers to "go negative" early and "never back off". They must sometimes ignore voters' main concerns because "important issues can be of limited value". The book suggests looking for a "minor detail" to use against opponents, pointing to Willie Horton as a good example. Though it says a positive proposal also can be helpful, it counsels candidates to consider the consequences: "Does it help, or at least not harm, efforts to raise money?" Mr. Gingrich has called the book "absolutely brilliant".

Even more has been written about the most famous Gopac document,

... a memo by Gingrich called "Language, a Key Mechanism of Control", in which the then-House minority whip gave candidates a glossary of words, tested in focus groups, to sprinkle in their rhetoric and literature. For example, it advised characterizing Democrats with such words as "decay, sick, pathetic, stagnation, corrupt, waste, traitors". (LA Times, 12/19/94, pages A31)

In my view, though, the most significant feature of Newt World is not its language, which is certainly fascinating, or its association with industry, which is hardly surprising or novel, but rather its use of technology. Mr. Gingrich is a pioneer in the use of new technologies to build a political movement. I do have to hand it to him -- he has worked hard and he has a genius for political organizing. Having observed in the early 1980's that candidates spend a lot of dead time on the road traveling around during campaigns, he hit upon the idea of sending them videos and other materials about campaigning. This is what Gopac did. As time went on, they generalized this model to include scheduled conference calls and video broadcasts in which Mr. Gingrich and others would provide campaigners with advice about messages and methods.

How does this model scale to 200,000-plus people? Well, at that point it starts to sound a lot like the information superhighway -- a technology for centralized broadcast of programs to a group that isn't the "mass audience" of conventional TV broadcasting but is distributed across the country. More tailored programming could be distributed as well -- to particular geographical regions, to activists on particular issues, and so forth. It's not a decentralized model like the Internet, but then it's not the political vision that normally goes with the Internet either. It's closer to the asymmetrical distribution model found in the plans of many cable and regional phone companies -- some of whom, you might recall, sponsored the Progress and Freedom Foundation's conference.

This is not to say that Newt Gingrich and company are engaged in a conspiracy against the Internet. After all, Mr. Gingrich has made some encouraging statements about making Congressional materials available to citizens on the Internet, and this is certainly a good and laudable thing. The situation and the participants' views are often complicated. The point is that technologies are not neutral. Technologies certainly do not determine how they will be used, but neither are they simply tools that can be used for any old purpose at all. Rather, technologies and social forms evolve together, according to the affordances of the machinery and the forces of the social system.

None of this coevolution goes simply or smoothly in practice, of course, nor is any of it inevitable. As the Internet illustrates extremely well, machines frequently have uses that nobody ever thought of, and these can often be resources for people wishing to engage in genuine, bottom-up democracy. The machines can't restore the health of our democracy, though -- we have to do that ourselves. And in doing so, we need to be aware of the complex and ambiguous interactions between the workings of our machinery and the forms of our political life.

In particular, we should not assume that the Internet's open and decentralized architecture necessarily makes it a force for democracy, or that it necessarily levels the field for all players. The practice of politics on the Internet is increasingly complicated, with new kinds of players and new variations on the existing games.

As a case study in these issues, let's consider an organization called the Wireless Opportunities Coalition. The WOC has circulated an alert on the net seeking support for a certain position in a fairly arcane regulatory fight within the FCC over the rules in certain frequency bands for digital wireless communications. The WOC's materials are also available on WWW:

The basic idea of the WOC's arguments is that companies with very sensitive communications devices shouldn't be able to displace other users of certain frequencies, including low-power digital wireless communications used for educational purposes, for example in local community networking in areas that do not have high rates of telephone service. This certainly sounds like a good cause, and it probably even is a good cause.

But note that the Wireless Opportunities Coalition, is a creation of a public relations firm called Issue Dynamics Inc, whose largest clients include Bell Atlantic and a lobbying alliance of the US regional phone companies. (To be fair, they also include the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.) I couldn't find this information by searching through the WOC web pages, but you can verify it easily enough by aiming your web client at the underlying index:

As recently as December 9th this page was entitled "IDI Index"; it is now, as of December 20th, called "Policy.Net". Click on "Issue Dynamics", read down to the bottom, and click on the IDI logo, which will take you to:

Why is it "" and not ""? Never mind. My point is not that these folks are evil or that they have no right to speak. My point is that they are a public relations firm practicing their craft on the Internet. In the future, I expect that ordinary citizens using the Internet will want to inform themselves about who's behind all of those slick web pages.

Public relations and its place in society is a fascinating and important topic, and I encourage everyone to learn more about it. If you're interested, here is a brief reading list:

Finally, let me close with a pertinent quote:

One practice which I believe should be eliminated is that of the so-called "paper front". A client is advised to finance an "organization" to promote or fight for its cause under the guise of an independent and spontaneous movement. This is a plain public deceit and fraud and of course is a technique developed with consummate skill and in great profusion by the Communists. In a free country any interest with a cause has a right to present its case to the public, to inform and, if possible, to persuade to its heart's content. But that right of free speech also carries the obligation that the source of it will be in the open for all to see. Attempts to fool the public by making it believe an "organization" existing only on paper is really a vociferous group favoring this or that cause have helped to cast a shadow upon the business of public relations counseling. No counsel who wants to preserve his own reputation will ever be a party to the issuance of any public statement by a client unless the source is clearly set forth. Obviously, when a client is involved in a public relations controversy, supporting statements are welcomed from every responsible source. But such statements should be issued by real-live people or organizations and not phoneys."

This quote is from the autobiography of John W. Hill ("The Making of a Public Relations Man", recently republished by NTC Business Books, pages 139-140), who founded one of the largest public relations firms, Hill and Knowlton.

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