By founding EPIC, a nonprofit group, he has helped to keep Net privacy issues on the front burner. He launched the recent successful campaign against online marketing leader DoubleClick's attempt to merge and sell online and offline consumer data--without permission.
To get e-commerce privacy safeguards for consumers embodied in laws, despite anti-regulatory pressure from tech executives.
Meet the Net's Ralph Nader. Not everyone knows Marc Rotenberg's name --Jeff Bezos didn't when we asked. But they know his work. The 39-year-old executive director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) is the Web's top privacy activist. His mission: laws limiting digital snooping by business and government.
Rotenberg, who teaches privacy law part-time at Georgetown University, keeps the privacy issue on Washington's front burner. Convinced that the online industry will not police itself, Rotenberg last year led the attack on Web marketer DoubleClick Inc.'s plan to merge data on Web surfers' online behavior--including addresses and purchasing habits--with offline databases and sell it without notifying consumers. EPIC filed a complaint with the feds, and ultimately DoubleClick backed down. Says Rotenberg: ''There's this self-interested industry view that says, 'Give up your privacy and we can give you all sorts of benefits for doing so.' I say, lose your right to privacy and you lose your democratic freedoms.''
DoubleClick was just the latest target on a list that has included the Clinton Administration and Intel since Rotenberg founded EPIC in 1994. EPIC is effective despite its annual budget of only $250,000, which comes from diverse nonprofits, such as the conservative Fund for Constitutional Government and the Ford Foundation. Its threat of a boycott last year helped stop Intel from activating technology in Pentium III chips that would have made it easier to track Net surfing. Says AOL Chairman Steve Case: ''The guy can cause a privacy uproar at the click of a computer mouse.''
A passion for corporate and government accountability isn't all Rotenberg has in common with Nader. He has a strict code of ethics and won't own tech stocks, bank online, or accept corporate speaking fees. ''I'm not one of the boys,'' Rotenberg says.
The son of a Boston realtor got an early start at both computers and activism. He recalls marching at the age of seven with his parents, wearing a sandwich board to protest the Vietnam War. He and brother Jonathan ravaged Mom's kitchen table with burn marks from soldering guns they used to build calculators from kits. As an undergrad at Harvard, he taught computer-science classes to freshmen. ''I'm probably the only person who has been into computers for 20 years who isn't making any money,'' he says. Rotenberg doesn't mind. ''Privacy is the No. 1 civil liberties issue of the new century and a way to make a difference.'' Rotenberg already has--and he's just getting started.