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A Pioneering Digital Issues Group Closes, But the Issues Live On

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Friday, May 10 2013

Amid all the clamor over proposed biometric databases, constant electronic surveillance, and the trends toward autonomous warfare this week, there was a bit of news that emerged that didn't hit the headlines. That was the quiet death of a pioneering organization that gave shape to many of the current groups that either fight for digital rights, or who do the thinking in a world that is increasingly defined and controlled by technology.

The anachronistically-named Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility has shut down as a non-profit educational corporation, Doug Schuler, a former chairman of the group announced online in a couple of listservs earlier this week. The group was first 'formed' through a listserv at Xerox PARC in 1981 when computer scientist Severo Ornstein sent out a message about an effort to better inform policy makers about computer technologies and their implications.

The intention was to mobilize 'nerds' in science and research to pay attention to current events and to take action because the politicians, who he called 'crackpots,' in an oral history, "were going to do us all in if they were not careful."

Ornstein was referring to his concern over the threat of a nuclear war. But the group, which at one point had staff on board, published working papers, and its members wrote newspaper articles and held conferences about the societal issues that arose out of the use of emerging technologies.

Many of those issues previously sounded obscure, but they are now discussed daily as part of America and the world's pop culture because of the reach of technology into our daily lives. Example: Today, the Electronic Privacy Information Center's Marc Rotenberg, who used to be the Washington director for CPSR, was on Huff Post Live online discussing the disturbing documents recently unearthed by the American Civil Liberties Union that showed that the FBI is advising its agents that it can access anyone's e-mails that are over 180 days old and opened, without a warrant.

The group addressed many issues across the tech spectrum, everything from participatory design to community networks, to voting technology.

"CPSR was launched in 1981 in Palo Alto, California, to question the computerization of war in the United States via the Strategic Computing Initiative to use artificial intelligence in war, and, soon after, the Strategic Defense Initiative — “Star Wars”. Over the years CPSR evolved into a “big tent” organization that addressed a variety of computer-related areas including workplace issues, privacy, participatory design, freedom of information, community networks, and many others.," Schuler explained in his e-mail on the closing of the group.

"CPSR to me provided a vital link to important ideas and to inspirational and creative people," he wrote. "These people believed that positive social change was possible and that the use of ICT could play a significant role. For example, in 1993, CPSR developed a document designed to help shape the National Information Infrastructure (NII) program promoted by the Clinton/Gore administration to help guide the evolution of networked digital communication. Through a variety of conferences, workshops and reports, CPSR encouraged conversations about computers and society that went beyond hyperbole and conventional wisdom."

Schuler said in his announcement that he and others who were part of CPSR are maintaining a page with links to other current organizations that would have been allies of CPSR 'if it still existed." That list will live here.

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