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When Microsoft Corp. announced its plan to acquire Yahoo in February, the Center for Democracy and Technology was far from the only advocacy group to question the deal on privacy and antitrust grounds. It was, however, the only advocacy group voicing those concerns that counts the Seattle software giant as a major financial backer. “They’re reasonable concerns, and at Microsoft we take them very seriously,” says Frank Torres, the company’s head Washington lobbyist. Microsoft is not the only technology company that’s dealing with an unusual relationship with the CDT, which blends its role as an industry forum with consumer advocacy and a tendency to nibble on the hands that feed it. Other donor firms like eBay and VeriSign have also had major policy disputes with the CDT. Even Comcast is a longtime contributor, despite the CDT’s unabashed support for net neutrality legislation that the cable company has spent millions to defeat. In the 14 years since it was founded by former ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Jerry Berman, the CDT has evolved into a strange bird that defends the Internet’s ideals of openness, equality, and anonymity by working hand in hand with the commercial interests that often seem to threaten them. “If we attacked people we’d just be a loudmouth on a lot of issues,” Berman says. “We try to represent everyone who cares about this space.” That approach has won over the industry’s top lobbyists so thoroughly that Torres says they joke about how, in the event that a calamity befalls the capital, they’ll all retreat to the cabin Berman owns in the mountains of West Virginia. These days, any such refugees would likely find him already there. Berman has gradually extricated himself from the organization, leaving the CDT in the hands of his successor and one-time ACLU colleague Leslie Harris. Devoted to readying the CDT for both contentious statehouse policy fights bubbling up over matters like social networks and extending the CDT’s reach in the debate over government control of the Internet at home and abroad, she expects the CDT to grow, especially its satellite office in California.
What Matters to CDT’s Backers
Comcast: Comcast has little in common with the CDT on net neutrality, but uses its membership in the group to connect with public interest advocates on Internet free expression, privacy, and digital security issues. Dell: The hardware manufacturer backs the CDT’s advocacy on consumer issues like privacy protections and the anti-spyware coalition. eBay: eBay’s primary concerns are free expression and consumer privacy. Microsoft: Rules for online advertising and privacy are big, and the company’s HealthVault electronic medical records system means it has a stake in the CDT’s health privacy working group. VeriSign: The CDT’s role in framing Internet governance issues is important for the online infrastructure company, as is the CDT’s digital privacy security working group for its identity certification services. Google: Concerns about privacy, online data storage, and the gathering and use of advertising data loom large. Free expression in countries where the Internet is tightly controlled is a major policy concern.

“We’ve been transitioning into CDT 2.0,” Harris says. Aiding her is a staff of advocates and attorneys like Ari Schwartz, Jim Dempsey, and John Morris, all of whom have been with the CDT for more than five years. They have so far all stayed through the transition from Berman’s leadership, resisting what Shane Tews, VeriSign’s public policy director, believes would be lucrative work downtown: “Law firms have a growing interest in what they do. They could collect $500,000 from some places downtown just for breathing.” It’s that expertise that has drawn a donor base to the CDT that’s broad to the point of all-inclusiveness. Forty percent of the CDT’s $2.2 million budget last year came from foundations in the nonprofit world, with an equal amount from tech companies like hardware makers, e-commerce, service providers, and software developers. A primary incentive to support the CDT are its working groups, ad-hoc policy and negotiating efforts that attempt to find answers to the Internet’s thornier problems. The CDT’s newest working group, on the proper handling of electronic health records, launched this month, with Microsoft as a member. The CDT will likely play a role similar to the one it occupied during the run up to anti-spyware legislation in 2004 and 2005, when Congress started proposing overly broad bills “in the absence of really good solid thinking,” Torres says. “CDT came into it and said, �How do you ever go about defining what spyware is?’” he says. “They brought in industry groups, consumer advocates, and even some of the spyware guys.” Over the next few years, Harris and CDT backers expect the working groups to become devoted to one particularly nettlesome issue: cloud computing. The increasing sophistication of Web-based applications and data storage known as “the cloud” (think Google’s online word processor) poses a fundamental threat to end-user software (think Microsoft Word on your desktop.) Sorting through what the battle will mean for privacy, data storage, and e-commerce is “the uber issue” on the consumer side, Harris says, though it’s hardly been touched by the federal government in recent years. But the CDT won’t be dictating the answers. “The CDT voice is a cautious voice,” Harris says, and its role will be to help sort it all out in the company of government, industry, and public interest players.

Jeff Horwitz can be contacted at [email protected].

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