Business Technology: Chicken Little, Wake Up And Don't Quit

I've always had great admiration for Mitch Kapor and his seminal invention. I never got too caught up in the stuff about him being a former teacher of transcendental meditation or his background as a disc jockey

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

March 14, 2003

4 Min Read

I didn't attend the unveiling of Lotus 1-2-3 some 20 years ago, but a number of people who were there said it was absolutely breathtaking, and perhaps the most revolutionary new IT product they've ever seen. These people said the sheer innovation, the hard-to-fathom business value, and tranformative thinking stunned the audience. In that vein, I've always had great admiration for Mitch Kapor and his seminal invention. I never got too caught up in the stuff about him being a former teacher of transcendental meditation or his background as a disc jockey -- more than once, I've seen Harry Truman described as a failed haberdasher. Nor did it really amount to a hill of lentils when, after leaving Lotus, Kapor said his next venture would be the opening of a deli in Cambridge. And then a while later he founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation -- early on, way back when the EFF was still relevant (a status it has long since lost). Kapor said the "frontier" part of the name stemmed from the fact that out on the electronic frontier, "you have to churn your own butter."

Somewhere along the line, though, the EFF turned from thoughtful observer and commentator to public scold, conspiracy theorist, and screeching extremist. In the eyes of the EFF, no idea, however large or small, fails to present a threat to group rights and civil liberties. As mentioned a couple of weeks ago in this space, the EFF -- in a contortionist act whose preposterous nature could almost be admired for its sheer audacity were it in itself not so perverse -- managed to find fault with Visa International's outstanding effort to attack the spread of child pornography. Some EFF lawyer whined that big financial-services companies could try to censor the Internet or control what was said or not said on the Internet or some such crap. (See "Kudos To Visa For Battling Pornography," p. 100, March 3, 2003.)

Shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the CIA and some nuclear power plants removed floor plans and architectural blueprints of their facilities from their Web sites, and the EFF's knees jerked spasmodically and it railed against "censorship." And I remember thinking, these people aren't stupid, so what is the problem? Why, in a world filled with real problems, do they drill down on scenarios that make the fantasies of A Beautiful Mind seem by comparison rock-solid? Why camp on the lunatic fringe?

And then I saw a news story in the March 11 issue of The New York Times: "Mitchell D. Kapor, a personal computer industry software pioneer and a civil liberties activist, has resigned from the board of Groove Networks after learning that the company's software was being used by the Pentagon as part of its development of a domestic surveillance system." (See "Software Pioneer Quits Board Of Groove"). That system is called Total Information Awareness, it's being tested by the very same governmental agency that was a major force in the development of the Internet (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), it is an antiterrorist surveillance tool and, according to the Times, "on Feb. 11, House and Senate negotiators agreed that the Total Information Awareness project could not be used against Americans." This is bad?

Like all of us, Kapor is fully entitled to his views and opinions, and can resign from anything he darn well wants to. But it strikes me that this is really too much. Eighteen months after Islamic terrorists incinerated 3,000 innocent people in this country -- mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, friends, grandparents -- Kapor resigns from the board of a company that's making anti-terrorist software because "he cares very much about the social impact of technology," according to a quote from EFF executive director Shari Steele in the Times story.

Mitch, this business has been pretty good to you. If you really "care very much," you wouldn't do the Chicken Little thing. It's time for doers, not quitters.

Bob Evans
Editor in Chief
[email protected]

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