Technology

A Grass-Roots Revolt against Information-Age Intruders


Even the politically conscious crew in the West Wing had no idea how raw a nerve they would touch when President Bush on June 28 announced the creation of a Do Not Call Registry to protect Americans from unwanted telemarketing. In the first three weeks after the Federal Trade Commission opened the no-call list on July 1, more than 27 million Americans signed up. It's just the latest sign of a growing grassroots backlash against intrusive information purveyors of the New Economy. And politicians across the ideological spectrum are jumping on the bandwagon of technopopulism.

They cast themselves as the defenders of ordinary voters who want to rein in spammers jamming e-mail systems, telemarketers interrupting ever-vanishing family time, and credit companies trading in consumer financial data. ``Americans have accepted technology as a piece of their everyday lives, but they're still fighting it,'' explains Representative Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.), co-sponsor of one of the rapidly proliferating anti-spam bills on Capitol Hill.

The movement to block Information Age aggravations is creating strange bedfellows. Conservatives, traditionally focused on Big Government intrusions on individual privacy, are considering joining liberals in the fight against corporate nosiness. ``There's so much information available to so many people that you have to rethink how to build the walls,'' says David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union.

Buoyed by the popularity of the Do Not Call Registry, a broad Left-Right coalition -- uniting the Consumers Union with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- wants an anti-spam bill next. The legislation faces hurdles in the House, where members are squabbling over whether to give consumers the right to sue spammers. But public outcry is pressuring lawmakers to reach a deal this year. While liberals are out to protect consumers from shady operators and commercialization run amok, corporate interests want to ensure the survival of the emerging Internet marketplace. ``Spam is making consumers less likely to purchase online,'' says Joe Rubin, executive director for technology and e-commerce at the Chamber of Commerce.

A Senate bill by conservative Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and liberal Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to combat bulk unsolicited e-mail is moving quickly. It would require e-mail marketers to give consumers the ability to opt out of receiving such messages and impose penalties of up to $3 million on offenders. Because of rising public anger at out-of-control spammers, support for the bill ``has achieved critical mass,'' Burns says.

But concerns about privacy extend beyond the e-mail inbox. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) is preparing a new push for tighter curbs on financial institutions' ability to share customer data with affiliates or outside companies. And a key House panel on July 16 adopted a proposal pushed by Treasury Secretary John W. Snow to combat identity theft, including free annual credit reports for consumers. The proposal is coupled with a measure sought by banking interests: permanent renewal of provisions that bar states from imposing tougher credit-reporting restrictions than the feds.

Just as Teddy Roosevelt wrestled to protect workers and smaller competitors from corporate oligarchs of the Industrial Age, today's technopopulists are trying to write new rules for the Information Age. Progress may be slow and obstacles large, but their momentum appears unstoppable. By Catherine Yang, with Lorraine Woellert and Amy Borrus


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