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THE CUTTING EDGE | POSTCARD FROM CYBERSPACE

Workers' Steam Helps Drive Free Speech Debate

December 16, 1996|TERRY SCHWADRON

For federal employees--or former employees--upset over policies in their workplaces, here comes the Internet to supplement the usual water cooler griping about what's wrong with the bosses upstairs.

There's nothing illegal, immoral or unethical going on here, but peeking in at the sometimes private correspondence among government agency administrators seems to be giving more than a few folks a thrill.

Recently, the Los Angeles Times reported on the growth of Web sites where individuals criticize or parody entertainment studios and product offerings from corporations. Because these sites often steal logos and text or video from official company Web sites, lawyers for the offended parties are citing alleged copyright or trademark infringements in an effort to shut them down.

But in the world of government agencies, there are no such rules.

So employees concerned by talk of buyouts and layoffs, for example, are taking their case directly to an electronic audience.

Meet Keith Cowing, 41, of Reston, Va.

Three years ago, he left the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to pursue a career as a biologist. As a hobby, then as a sideline business, he started Reston Communications (http://www.reston.com), which he has used to take readers to several quite serious and interesting sites that further learning about space exploration and astrobiology.

But he still has lots of friends at NASA, and when talk got hot about buyouts and proposed Reductions in Force, he decided to help out acquaintances who needed information by creating NASA RIF Watch (http://www.reston.com/rif/watch.html). It's a nonprofit site that includes voluminous agency correspondence about proposed buyouts and reductions (later rescinded), and lots more about NASA missions, strategies, speeches and the like. Still, he said, it is "officially shunned" by NASA.

He does target NASA director Daniel S. Goldin for criticism and parody. His site suggests it has "all the news that Dan is scared to print."

"What my friends were doing was getting ahold of office memos and copying and recopying them until they couldn't be read anymore. This just circumvents all of the copying and passing around," Cowing said. The official NASA site also started carrying some of the documents, but "like most of NASA, the site was devoid of humor. I thought I could help that too.

"NASA says I'm 'disgruntled.' I'm not. I view myself as more of a news person about the agency than a newsmaker. If this were NASA bashing, I wouldn't do it." He says he has rejected secret documents offered to him and even reported what he regarded as security violations to the agency.

He believes director Goldin to be a brilliant cheerleader for expanded space exploration but a lousy manager. So Cowing publishes documents and images poking fun at Goldin and has made Goldin the butt of one-liners.

Cowing's is not the only site of its kind.

At the IRS RIF Zone (http://www.ccsi.como/~tmorizot/rif/rifmain.htm), IRS employee Scott Morizot takes his agency to task over reductions in employment and Dilbert-like bureaucracy. He tells fellow employees his site "may contain some material inappropriate for the workplace . . . and certainly contains materials generally unavailable at work." He also makes liberal use of humor and has been forced both to compromise and rebuff efforts from his superiors to temper his publication.

Yet another such address is the Disgruntled Postal Worker Zone (http://www.well.com/user/ecp), which proudly proclaims it has won recognition as a Cruel Site of the Day for its biting remarks about postal service employment. "Is the word 'disgruntled' a registered trademark of the U.S. Postal Service?" Webmaster Eric Pivnik asks.

Visitors are offered the chance to buy "Disgruntled" buttons (there is a discount for postal workers), to view cartoons on the post office theme and to read electronic letters from those who otherwise would be delivering them as snail mail.

He also offers actual postal service information, including views of new stamps.

From Pivnik's site, it's an easy link to the themed sites of punk bands Postal and Disgruntled, whose raw printed lyrics do not raise the tone of any discussion, and to Disgruntled magazine (http://www.disgruntled.com), a Web magazine devoted to workers who want to complain about their bosses. There is a special section set aside for federal employees.

In turn, Disgruntled magazine has links to such sites as The Angry Organization, Dan McGripes, UpSizeDown, Wal-Mart Employee Abuse Forum, The Bastard PR Firm and the Disgruntled Delivery Boy. Whatever . . .

Human nature insists that this is a trend that will broaden. Either because misery loves company or because people will always complain about their workplace, there are some early lessons to be sought here.

The human need to ask whether things need to be quite as serious as the front office would demand seems insatiable. Lighten up! is what the brass keeps hearing.

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