Russell D. Hoffman Interviews Jim Warren


Interview with Jim Warren

An interview by Russell D. Hoffman on his radio show HIGH TECH TODAY.

The following is a full transcript of a radio show broadcast on radio station WALE. The views expressed are solely those of Russell D. Hoffman and Jim Warren and do not necessarily reflect anyone else's point of view.

June 6th, 1995

Russell Hoffman ("Host"), High Tech Today
Jim Warren ("JW"), Famous computer person.

Host: ...And you're listening to High Tech Today with your host, Russell Hoffman and my guest today is Jim Warren. Jim Warren is a... "a government information access nut". He's trying to get us information from our government, through the Internet. He has a couple of credentials I'd like to discuss--to tell you about. He was the founder and publisher of InfoWorld. Also the founder and publisher and editor of Silicon Gulch Gazzette AND the founder and editor of Dr. Dobb's Journal of Computing. And DataCast. And the West Coast Computer Faire! And more! And he's the recipient of numerous awards, the Hugh Hefner First Amendment Award, the James Madison Freedom of Information Award, the Society of Professional Journalists, he's the founding chair of the First Conference on Computers, Freedom and Privacy in 1991 and uh... and I've only scratched the surface! But I guess I'll stop scratching and let you introduce yourself. Welcome to the show, Mr. Warren!

JW: Thanks for having me. Basically the credentials simply say I can't make up my mind what I want to do when I grow up. (Laughs.)

Host: Well, I guess you've got a way to go here, you--you're all over the board!

JW: Yeah!

Host: National Science Foundation lecturer, uh... and it goes on!

JW: Now you're really reaching into history! (They both laugh) When you're pushing sixty you can have three or four careers behind you!

Host: In fact I think you should! I'm working on a few myself...

JW: Yeah--my condolences!

Host: Anyway... I think--What I'm particularly interested in today is your--what you've done for California, getting information from the Government to the people, through the Internet and through other online services.

JW: I'll talk about this briefly and only from the perspective of what can be done anywhere, rather than --

Host: -- Right Right --

JW: -- what has been done in California. Simply using California as an example.

Host: As an example of what can be done.

JW: Yeah. One of the neat things about it is that the Internet is a potent grass-roots political action tool. And let me illustrate how we used it here in California, or how I used it and folks on the net used it to put things through here in California.

In 1993 a freshman member of the Lower House of the California Legislature, which is called the Assembly, not knowing that freshman don't introduce substantive bills, dropped a bill in the hopper, that would mandate that all state legislative information, that's already been computerized for close to ten years at the time, would be made available to the public by dial-up access by computer modem. And she immediately ran into a quiet political firestorm of people saying "Oh no no, we don't want to do that!"

The first ones that came out of the woodwork saying "we don't want to do that" were the people who run the legislative data center saying "Well,--" and it took a while for them to say this, but the substance was they were selling this information for five hundred thousand dollars a year! They were making a nice healthy little revenue--a non tax base, off- budget revenue stream, peddling the legislature--the public legislative information in computerized form--and they didn't want to give it away! And that was part of her legislation. And then there were political tiffs with senior legislators who didn't want a junior legislator to have credit for doing something substantive like this.

Anyway, the upshot was, that when the bill was introduced, simply, it was D.O.A. It was Dead On Arrival. Because the legislative data center first came over and said, "Look, we'll be happy to do this--" They don't say no to the legislator, they say "Of course we'll be happy to do it! Here's what we need in order to do it: We need you to buy us a complete new mainframe computer (because we're running on an IBM mainframe and that's the only thing we know). We can set up a complete statewide computer network to allow this dial-up access. We'll have to have new staff to run all of this. And it's going to cost millions and millions of dollars."

That's the way bureaucrats kill legislation they don't want to see in action. And between that and the legislator not really having any constituents lined up to support the bill, the bill was dead.

Well, somebody knew that I had written a number of columns about access to public records--computer assisted access to public records--and faxed a copy of the bill to me, and I wrote a column about how this is a really neat bill and we ought to support it, and sent a pre-publication copy of the column to the bill's author, with a hand-scribbled note saying "Hey! Neat Stuff! Go For It!"

I got a call about an hour later from her aide saying "Well, this is real nice. And we appreciate the kind words, but I'm sorry to tell you, the in great difficulty." And as we discussed it, she first of all talked about the legislative data center wanting the monster computers and a state-wide network and all sorts of other staff, and I said, well, why don't they just put it on a desktop file server on the Internet? And she said, like most lay people would, "What's that?" (laughs.) And I said, "Trust me. There's an easy, cheap way to do this! Are there any other problems?"

And then she mentioned that they really didn't have any constituents who they could identify that would support it, and I said "What do you mean?! There are LOTS of people who would support free, public access by computer net--particularly in a state like California which is a high-tech state--to the legislative information. All you need is evidence of their interest--of a constituency that supports this?" And this is perhaps one of the key things in all this babbling that I'm doing right now. She said "Oh! Ten or fifteen letters or faxes supporting this legislation would be a strong showing of support!" And I sort of blurted out: "You mean out of 31 million Californians?" And she says "Oh yes!"

Host: (Laughs)

JW: Well, I went on the net that night and blitzed out a message saying what was going on, and giving their phone number and fax number and address, and I think it took her about three days to get her 15 faxes and letters. And then, that was the beginning. Suddenly this bill which was dead, was alive. The stake had been pulled out of its heart and it was suddenly back on the table, as a possibly viable bill. Then to get the bill through--against opposition from a number of circles. I mean, there were legitimate opponents of the bill saying simply, "we should not be giving away the public's valuable information--we should be selling it--" to the public, they didn't notice that inconsistency.

There were people who were dearly opposed to it, because they felt that we were giving away a valuable state resource. But, through using the computer net--I was sort of in the middle of this. I was coordinating communications out across the net, because I knew how to do that, and had a large number of contacts on the net, because I've been around the industry forever. And, the staffer that I was working with, was working closely with the legislator. So that, they would find out when the bill was going to be in the next committee, what the committee members and the committee staff were thinking about the bill, they would feed that information to me, I would list out a message across the net, and essentially, this went through four committee votes, and three floor votes, in the two houses of the legislature, without a single solitary dissenting vote.

And the reason was, every time they went to committee, which of course was agendized, and we would know about it several days in advance. A couple of days before the committee was to have a hearing and vote, they were just blindsided with phone calls and fax numbers. Now, you couldn't do that unless you had lots and lots of money--

Host: --Or connections on the Internet--

JW: --with any previous technology. You could only do it, we could only do it-- One person--I--could only do it economically, and fast enough, via the net. Anything else simply wouldn't have worked because of the short lead time between the time that the bill went on an agenda for a committee hearing and vote, and the time the committee hearing or vote was to occur, which was typically a couple of days away. But the net provided very fast response times, from a population scattered all over...the state. And that was neat stuff.

It was passed and signed into law in the end of 1993, took effect in January of 1994. Today, that legislative information system typically gets 50 to 60 thousand hits a month, in people requesting information from it. One of their concerns (of the legislators) was "Gee, nobody can do that! That's just for yuppies and wire-heads!" Well, it turns out that there are an awful lot of yuppies and wire-heads interested in free access to "the process of their own government", if you will.

Host: My guest is Jim Warren, and among his long list of credentials, he's the founder of Computer Chronicles!

JW: And the point is: ANYBODY CAN DO THIS!...

Host: Yes!... [break] ...We're talking about the Internet, and public access of government information, and the other side of that is, government access of private information--in other words, wiretaps. I read an interesting article yesterday, that said that American freedom from wiretaps is significantly less when we visit foreign countries. That's freedom from our own government's wiretaps while we're in foreign countries. But overall, in America, what is the government doing on the Internet to make it easier for them to do wiretaps, what are the ramifications to our freedoms, our civil liberties, and -- what's it going to cost us?

JW: Well, it's not just what they're doing on the Internet--they're much more interested in wiretapping the nation than they are in wiretapping the Internet in particular. There are less than 1100 court ordered, court authorized wiretaps in the entire United States per year. Now this is according to FBI information that was finally pried out of the FBI under Freedom of Information Act demands--it took almost a year to get it. Nonetheless, in spite of the fact that less than 1100 court-ordered wiretaps are authorized each year, the FBI and associated agencies, the NSA and probably the CIA, we don't know--went to congress in 1994 and in less than two months jammed through what they politely called the Digital Telephony Act.

[The Digital Telephony Act] mandated that all public telephone systems would make themselves wiretap-ready within three years, and also authorized five hundred million dollars to implement that mandate--to pay the phone companies to make themselves wiretap-ready. Now by wiretap-ready, they didn't mean okay, make it so that an agent can climb a telephone pole and clip onto a phone line and listen, or set up a stake-out in an adjacent apartment like they used to have to do. This means undetectable wiretap, at a keystroke, of any place in the nation, from any place in the nation, by anyone who can gain access to the system. Now of course it's only supposed to be limited to government agents, and they're only supposed to be operating, as the bill says, when authorized by law. But these same agencies keep telling us that our phone system is being cracked by these vile, evil phone phreaks all the time, that it is a terribly insecure system. Yet at the same time they want to make it easy, for anybody who can gain access to the system, to wiretap anyone!

I mean, I can readily imagine that the industrial espionage people, that the foreign political spies, that the--just curious technoids who want to eavesdrop on everybody--I can readily imagine all sorts of people, the high tech private investigators that are already using all sorts of surveillance tools, can hardly wait until we spend five hundred million tax dollars to make the nation wiretap-ready, and it's already been passed. Incidentally, the bill was introduced, authored by Senator Pat Leahy and Congressmember Don Edwards, it was introduced to the day on the twentieth anniversary of Nixon's resignation after he was unsuccessful in wiretapping Watergate and his political opponents.

Host: He didn't have good tools...

JW: Yeah, right! Yeah, they just didn't have good tools! Just think what an incumbent politician, and powerful bureaucrats can do with, and how tempted they will be to do it, with this kind of a Big Brother technology! And it's already passed into law! Now, what we were trying to do, this year, was to block the appropriation of the five hundred million dollars that was authorized for the legislation. And we were getting geared up to do that, until one lunatic, or one or two to three lunatics bombed the building in Oklahoma City, and now the Federal law enforcement has been using the actions of two or three people--or maybe it's even a dozen people--in Oklahoma City--to justify spending half a billion dollars to make the entire nation "guaranteed communication insecure." That's what it boils down to.

Host: My guest is Jim Warren, who is a... an electronic freedom fighter?

JW: (laughs) I'm--I'm interested in technology-related public policy and civil liberties issues. Voiceless speech, bodyless assembly, inkless press. Electrons are fully recyclable and very fast. It would be nice for all of us to have access to the kinds of tools that previously have only been available to the publishers who can afford to buy newsprint by the ton, and the public speakers who can afford to draw together a population or a group in a public place, and rent the public place and everything else. The net offers a phenomenal, democratizing, egalitarian tool to allow anybody who has a message to put forth, to in fact put that message out. You don't have to own a printing press, you don't have to buy newsprint by the ton, to become a publisher.

Host: Why not talk to us a little bit about how far down the line you think the government should go in getting information to us through online services.

JW: It's easy to say we want public access to government information and we want it for free. When we say we want it for free that simply means we want it prepaid by taxation. However making information available in electronic form on the computer net turns out to often be very inexpensive. It does however create a number of legitimate problems for government agencies--federal, state, and local; legislative, executive, and judicial, as far as what information they make available and how they deal with some of the complications. For instance: One of the major complications in making government information available to the public, in any form, but particularly in computerized form, is: What do you do about personal information?

Because, there is--almost--most of the information that government collects--...that may not be a valid statement--a lot of the information that government collects, is about individuals, and if you will, they collect it at the point of a gun. You don't have the option as to whether or not you are going to give this information to the government. They say "you are going to tell us all of this information, because we have decided that we need it in order to properly govern." And so we give up all sorts of very personal, very private information about ourselves to the government. That then is typically and justifiably commingled within a government agency. The private personal information is commingled electronically with components that are public record.

And the question arises of, if when the agency commingles disclosable or public and nonpublic information in a single database, to maintain agency efficiency, how do they take care of providing public information to the public upon request? It turns out that it's often a very difficult problem. One example might be arrest records. Or various types of criminal investigatory records. Now, during the process of an investigation those records are certainly not subject to public access. But after an investigation is over, particularly if there's been a prosecution and a conviction or a finding of innocence, possibly those records should be available, at least to the target. But what about the general public?

There's a company down in Southern California, I think they're down in San Diego, that for several years was going down and culling through, each morning, going down to the police department and culling through the arrest records, computerizing the arrest records--and you want the arrest records to be public. If they're not public, that's how people get lost in jail in other countries. You want your arrest record to be public. But they would go through these arrest records, computerize them, and then start peddling them to anybody who wanted them, most particularly the example being, was they were getting D.U.I., driving under the influence records, computerizing them, and then peddling them to attorneys who wanted to hustle D.U.I. cases. And they were also computerizing burglary arrest records and other "real" crime records, and peddling those to criminal defense attorneys, etc.

But there's immediately a problem, of how does an agency both operate efficiently, which means often commingling private information with public information, and at the same time provide the public with public access to the public parts of the information that they have? And it's not helped at all by some agencies wanting to profit off of this. For instance, the Los Angeles County Court System is proposing to prohibit, or limit, access to their public computerized court records in computerized form only to the people who can afford to pay a high profit to the agencies--to the court in order to gain access to it--and furthermore prohibit the bulk of copying of the information of public record. Bizarre! (laughs)

Host: My guest today...

JW: Let me--Do we have another minute or so?

Host: Yeah.

JW: Let me just sort of just tie some of these pieces together. I talked about legislative action, we talked a little bit about wiretaps, we haven't got into censorship yet and that's another hot topic, but basically what's at play here, is that the computer nets--the nonprofit, non proprietary, public, cooperative, anarchistic--that is nobody owns them and nobody manages them--computer nets--are the most powerful tool we have ever had for direct, grass-roots political action. More particularly, for the ability--for allowing citizens the opportunity to effectively participate in the process of our own government. Because they provide the two essential prerequisites for a free society.

Any free society must have, for it's the citizens, if they are to be free, in a free society, must as a first prerequisite have timely access to adequate information on which to base sound decisions about the community in which they live, whether it's the little village, or the town, or the city or the county or the state or the nation--or the world. If we don't have adequate information, and timely access to it, we can't participate in the process of our own government in an effective manner. We can participate in it only as slaves to those who do have the information. That's the first prerequisite.

The second prerequisite is that the body politic must have the ability to effectively communicate with itself. Citizens must have the ability to communicate with other citizens. Because even if you have all the information, you can't effectively act in a political environment unless you communicate with your peers.

Host: And of course any information that you have available to you, if you lose the right to get that information, it's much harder to get it back.

JW: And the computer net provides both of those prerequisites.

Host: My guest today has been Jim Warren, and you've been listening to High Tech Today with your host, Russell Hoffman... Thank you very much for being on the show, Jim!

JW: Thank you and I'll see all of you folks who want to participate in your own government, online!

Host: Bye Bye!

JW: Bye Bye!

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Interview by Russell D. Hoffman
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Interview on a related topic: Phil Zimmermann.

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