Förderverein Informationstechnik und Gesellschaft

NY Times on EPIC

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Date:          Mon, 01 Feb 1999 07:58:22 -0500
From:          Barry Steinhardt <>
Subject:       NY Times on EPIC

There was a wonderful story in this mornings New York Times about our
colleagues at EPIC. The story can be found at

The Privacy Group That Took On Intel

WASHINGTON -- Their small office is tucked away in Washington's
eclectic Eastern Market area, bordering the seedier side of Capitol
Hill. The hours are long, the pay low and the benefits modest. With an
annual budget of just $250,000 to cover salaries for three full-time
lawyers and three half-time helpers, they don't even have a fax line. 
Yet with just the touch of the button, employees of the Electronic
Privacy Information Center can reach more than 10,000 people, an
international audience that is educated and technologically savvy.
Perhaps that is why executives from the Intel Corporation, facing a
boycott from the privacy center over a controversial identification
feature in its new computer chip, traveled across the country on
Thursday to meet with the center's lawyers, Marc Rotenberg, Dave
Banisar and David L. Sobel, aggressive advocates for protecting
privacy and civil rights in the digital age. "We don't have fancy K
Street offices," Banisar said, referring to the capital thoroughfare
that is home to many lobbyists. "We don't have fancy K Street
salaries." "But," Rotenberg said, "we know how to use the Web. And on
the Web, this stuff really spreads like wildfire." Indeed, within
hours of an announcement by the privacy center and two other groups,
Junkbusters and Privacy International, of their planned boycott of
Intel, the world's largest computer chip maker, the company reversed a
plan to activate an identifying signature in its soon-to-be-released
Pentium III chip. Privacy advocates say the feature, designed to
enhance the security of electronic commerce and safeguard against
software piracy, would make it easy for online marketers, even
governments, to track people on the Internet. Although questions about
the chip were being raised by more groups than just the privacy center
-- including Representative Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, who is
the ranking Democrat on the House Consumer Protection Committee, and
other companies that do business with Intel -- the boycott did play an
important role in Intel's decision to review its plans for the Pentium
III, an Intel spokesman, Tom Waldrop, said. "I think it is safe to say
that the concerns were heightened greatly by the three privacy groups'
issuing the threat of the boycott, but those concerns were not new,"
Waldrop said. "We had heard them from others, just not as strong."
Founded in 1994, the Electronic Privacy Information Center is one of
several online civil liberties groups that are playing an increasingly
visible role in the shaping of policy for the digital age. It has
often focused on the Government, earning a pit-bull reputation in
fights with the Clinton Administration over export controls on
computer security technology, or encryption, and its refusal to pass
Internet privacy laws. The center's offices are decorated with posters
and other memorabilia about the National Security Agency, a clear sign
that "Big Brother" is a frequent target.

But it also has no hesitation about going after the high-technology
companies that on other issues are its allies. "In the crypto policy
realm, Intel probably likes what we do," Rotenberg said. "But as soon
as the crypto debate takes a turn to user privacy, we're going down
the user privacy road." And the privacy center has been quite
successful defending the Internet user. Sobel, a 45-year-old Miami
native, played an important role in two disputes with America Online,
one a successful challenge to the company's plan to sell customer
information to marketers, the other a high-profile lawsuit over the
company's release of personal information on a sailor that resulted in
his discharge under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on homosexuals.
America Online has since vowed to keep such personal information about
its customers private. Rotenberg, a 38-year-old Boston native, is
credited by some with launching the digital age privacy movement in
1991 with a campaign that forced Lotus to abandon plans for releasing
a CD-ROM for marketers with personal information gathered by Equifax
Inc., one of the nation's largest credit bureaus. In 1996, the privacy
center also helped derail a Lexis-Nexis product that included Social
Security numbers and other information. Banisar, a 32-year-old native
of Baltimore, has dedicated a lot of his time recently to studying
international encryption laws, writing reports challenging the
Administration's claims that its desire to control the technology is a
position supported by a majority of countries. The group has
aggressively used the Freedom of Information Act to monitor the
Government's actions, and has been the first to reveal, among other
things, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's desire to redesign the
telephone system to ease wiretapping. "I think EPIC right now is sort
of the pre-eminent privacy advocacy group in the United States," said
Joel Reidenberg, a professor at Fordham Law School in New York and an
expert on international privacy laws. "Marc Rotenberg has really taken
the lead on privacy issues in pushing American public policy toward
strong, fair information practices." Lance J. Hoffman, a computer
science professor who heads George Washington University's Cyberspace
Policy Institute in Washington, called the group "the closest thing to
a sort of consumer ombudsman for privacy that we have in cyberspace."
"I don't always agree with them," Hoffman said. "But they are quite
prepared to take offenders to the woodshed." Critics say the privacy
center is often too quick to take aim and unwilling to play the
Washington game of compromise to get disputes resolved. Indeed, within
minutes of finishing their meeting with Intel last week, the group's
leaders headed to the Federal Trade Commission to seek a recall of the
Pentium III. But Rotenberg makes no apologies for the group's
hard-line positions. "A lot of people think the only way to get things
done in Washington is to compromise," he said. "But these issues
change so quickly, I think the way that is most effective is to try
your best to get the position you want. We try hard to get right the
position." Even Ira C. Magaziner, who as President Clinton's top
Internet adviser often drew EPIC's harshest criticisms, said the group
played an important role in tough policy decisions. "I think that as
an advocacy group it is their role to be a kind of burr in the saddle
of policymakers," he said. "And in a sense it is not always their job
to be completely reasonable. It is their job to make noise and get
press attention. And I think they do that very effectively."
Rotenberg, Sobel and Banisar formed the privacy center after working
together in the Washington office of the Computer Professionals for
Social Responsibility. After taking on the Government over the Clipper
Chip a proposed system that would have given law enforcement the keys
needed to unscramble private computer communications, the three
lawyers decided to narrow the focus of their work. Hence, EPIC was
formed. Much of their financing comes from the Fund for Constitutional
Government, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting civil
liberties. They also receive money from other organizations and,
occasionally, companies. The privacy center has perhaps been most
visible in the ongoing encryption debate. The Clinton Administration
has all but abandoned its call for holding encryption keys in escrow
systems. But it continues, at the insistence of law enforcement
officials, to keep in place export controls on strong encryption
software, a policy that EPIC and other civil liberties groups have
joined industry in trying to eliminate. It has also strongly opposed
the Administration's continued call for self-regulation of the privacy
practices of online marketers, pushing instead for laws to protect
consumers. It has joined the American Civil Liberties Union and other
groups in their fights against online censorship, and has worked with
Congress on privacy issues involving automated health care records,
Social Security and copyright and data base protections. And the list
keeps growing. "