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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Techies, Politics Now Click

The 'geeks' who once shunned activism amid the digital revolution are using their money and savvy to influence public policy.

August 11, 2003|Joseph Menn | Times Staff Writer

The first call came before 9 a.m.

For the next eight hours, they kept coming: call after call at the rate of 20 per second, crippling the telephone systems of several U.S. senators.

The geeks were speaking -- in opposition to the imminent war in Iraq.

After years as political agnostics, the programmers and engineers who orchestrated the technological revolution of the 1990s are trying to reboot government. Top technology executives such as Bill Gates found their public voice years ago. Now, the tens of thousands of technology workers who toiled in cubicles writing software and creating gadgets are making their influence felt.

They have money, earned during the boom. They have time, found since the bust. And they are using their technological savvy to recruit even casual Internet users to their causes.

They want to make sure civil liberties aren't trampled in the push for greater security. They want privacy respected. And they want the media and the political conversation in general to be freed from the dominance of a small number of powerful groups and corporations. Otherwise, they are hard to place on the political spectrum.

One of the leaders of this loose-knit movement is Wes Boyd, a 42-year-old computer programmer who works out of a book-lined home office in a leafy section of Berkeley.

He made his money selling computer games and screen savers -- those flying toasters that became an early icon of high-tech chic. Then, disgusted by what he saw as the political grandstanding surrounding the impeachment of President Clinton in 1998, Boyd posted a Web site to vent. fielded 500 hits its first day, 7,000 the second. Within a few months, more than 250,000 visitors had signed an electronic petition calling for Congress to censure Clinton and "move on." Those early visitors formed the core of a group that now claims more than 1.3 million U.S. followers.

MoveOn members pay no dues but agree to receive e-mail notices of new positions and calls for action. Many pass on the information they get, becoming volunteer recruiters. MoveOn takes stands on a variety of issues, but describes itself primarily as a catalyst for grass-roots action -- on whatever its members think is important.

The group helped persuade more than 100,000 people to join an antiwar march in San Francisco in February, the largest such demonstration in the U.S.

It generated 150,000 electronic complaints to the Federal Communications Commission about its plan to let big media companies get even bigger, a policy change now under assault in Congress. And hundreds of thousands of MoveOn supporters took part in the February phone blitz of U.S. senators over their support of the Iraq war.

"You wish these things would be taken care of by other people," said Boyd, who founded MoveOn with his wife, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Joan Blades, after spending most of his life on the political sidelines. "But it turns out that if we don't play, if we don't work to make a difference, no one's going to do it. We just discovered that we couldn't look away anymore."

The organization raised $3.5 million to give to candidates who ran for federal office last year. In April, it said it was dedicating itself to unseating President Bush in 2004, though it has not come out in support of a candidate to replace him.

"We've been trying to engage people in other things, and almost always the answer comes back, 'Why bother? It's not going to matter if we don't get rid of Bush,' " Boyd said.

Dislodging a well-funded president might be beyond its reach. But some analysts see MoveOn and similar groups as a potent political force.

"I don't know of any group that has 1.3 million members who are as motivated to act when asked to," said Michael Cornfield, research director of George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet. MoveOn, he said, "has the potential to become through the Internet what the Christian Coalition became through direct mail."

Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee credit MoveOn and other Web activists with igniting the uproar that caused them to vote to cut off funding for the Terrorism Information Awareness program, a Bush administration initiative to scour databases for information on private citizens.


A Growing Movement

Another techno-populist group,, has attracted more than 50,000 adherents to its cause of protecting the right of consumers to make copies of the electronic content they buy.

The group was founded in 2001 by Joe Kraus and Graham Spencer, Stanford University graduates who made millions of dollars from their Web search firm Excite Inc., and it reflects the wider geek movement in its preference for personal freedom over increased protection of intellectual property.

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