Cyberlibertarians: Infotech Industry's Cannon Fodder

So they've done it again. Industry executives have sold out their cyberspace libertarian allies.

We should hardly be surprised that IBM Corp. and 10 allied companies struck a deal with the government on encryption technology as soon as they smelled a profitable market for key-recovery technology, which is loathed by the crypto-libertarians.

In 1994, the phone companies suddenly dropped their concerns about the constitutionality of government wiretaps once government officials offered them checks worth about $500 million.

Earlier this year, television broadcasters ended their public fretting about the constitutionality of the violence-filtering V-chip and government-mandated educational programming, when the Clinton administration decided not to charge them to use the TV portion of the spectrum.

Such cavalier treatment of the cybernauts may be routine, but it contrasts sharply with the heroic image sought by infotech executives.

After all, the Internet-niks -- led by such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union, Wired and the Electronic Privacy Information Center -- do much good for the infotech industry. They generate consistently favorable press coverage, are always ready to push extreme deregulatory arguments and are always armed with principled concerns about something.

Just look at the favorable stories in the national media about encryption. Usually, the industry's worries are played up, bogus factoids such as "$60 billion in market share is threatened" are repeated endlessly, and government rationales are downplayed.

This happens because the libertarians provide a steady stream of news for reporters to print. Also, most reporters are sympathetic to the libertarians, including industry's stalking horses such as the Center for Democracy and Technology, whose payroll is paid by Microsoft, Netscape and other barons of cyberspace.

Such sympathy effectively obscures the crass profit-maximizing goals of the industry. Has anyone ever seen a newspaper or TV program begin a story with a phrase such as "Infotech executives are willing to cripple law enforcement in their greedy pursuit of maximum profits."

For comparison, try to find even one favorable report in the national media on the National Rifle Association, which also pleads principled concerns over the constitutionality of gun controls while its gun industry backers rake in millions of dollars from the sale of deadly weapons.

Moreover, the Net-izens can always be relied upon to argue with a straight face that the V-chip is an unwarranted intrusion by the government into peoples' living rooms, or that any cyberobscenity rules are a gross violation of the constitution, or that all controls on encryption should be lifted because government officials can't reliably guarantee that no criminal -- somewhere, sometime -- will get hold of an encryption device.

But it's obvious the infotech industry can repeatedly ditch the libertarians because the libertarians tolerate the abuse in the hopes of advancing their causes.

Just as we can be sure the sun is coming up tomorrow, we're also sure the cyberlibertarians will line up alongside IBM next year to protest growing government plans to tax online commerce or to disagree with any equalization of universal-access charges for Web users and telephone users.

Like poker chips, Chinese foot soldiers or campaign dollars, the hopes held by cyberlibertarians are expended in vast numbers by industry to win concessions at the bargaining table. The only consolation is that the libertarians' hopes -- not their bones -- litter the field.

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