Jacking in from the "Back to the Future" Port:
Washington, DC -- The Electronic Frontier Foundation has fired its Policy Director Jerry Berman and will soon release a sweeping new agenda for 1995 that promises to return the organization to its original grassroots beginning.
Asked to comment on his firing, Berman bristles and says: "I think that's baloney." Then he quickly adds: "Did you ever think I might have wanted to leave?"
Berman has, in fact, left EFF, to head a new, as yet unannounced, policy group called the Center for Democracy and Technology. His departure from EFF and the creation of CDT will be made public this week in a joint announcement with EFF, sources said. The official line that will be spun to the public is that the two came to a "mutual parting of the ways."
That benign statement, however, doesn't reflect the long hours of the behind the scenes deliberations, in which the language of the press releases will be as cautiously worded as an official State Department briefing.
Heroes and pioneers always take the arrows; EFF lately has looked more like a pin-cushion than its self-appointed role as protector of all things Cyberspace. The beleaguered organization has over the course of the past two years endured often withering criticism from the very frontier citizens it was sworn to uphold and protect.
The reason: A perceived move away from its grassroots activism to the role of a consummate Washington Insider deal maker.
Berman is the man largely responsible for cutting EFF's policy cloth. He wears the suit well. Maybe too well. Although he has the political acumen to arm-wrestle inside-the-beltway, it comes at the expense of his management style, EFF insiders said. Those shortcomings came at the expense of EFF's day-to-day operations and didn't go unnoticed by its board of directors.
The EFF board in October fired Berman for mismanaging the group's organizational and fiscal responsibilities. No impropriety or malfeasance was alleged, the board was simply dissatisfied with Berman's day-to-day managing of the shop.
In a precursor to the board's October decision, it split Berman's job, giving him charge of just the policy arm, which board members said played to his strength. They then hired Andrew Taubman as executive director to oversee the day to day tasks.
Separate from the organizational and fiscal misgivings, the board also couldn't brook with priority on policy affairs that Berman had engineered. Although Berman expertly navigated EFF through the choppy political waters of Washington, that course increasingly steered the organization away from its original vision as a populist group.
Never was the hardcore policy-driven slant of EFF more apparent than during the two-plus year political firestorm that surrounded the FBI's infamous Digital Wiretap.
The political wrangling during that time, in which Berman brokered the influence of EFF with the backing of the telephone, computer and software industries, to reach a compromise with legislators and the FBI on the bill's language, increasingly drove a wedge between the organization and its grassroots membership.
Nobody within EFF interviewed for this article disagreed with how Berman ran his policy tour de force. In fact, the board was generally in agreement that Berman did an excellent job in helping to broker a less nefarious version of the FBI's wiretap bill than would have otherwise passed without his involvement on EFF's behalf.
As effective as Berman was in shuffling between the political and ideological interests of EFF and its members, the "inside baseball" political bullshit was largely lost on the community of the Net, who viewed it as a kind of betrayal.
The fact that there would be a backlash from the Net came as no surprise to Berman and EFF, who recognized the fine line they had to walk in dealing with a politically charged issue rivaled only by the Administration's insipid Clipper Chip encryption policy.
You see, the Net community is a binary braintrust, a world of ones and zeros -- either on or off -- in which shades of grey are rarely an option. Yet it is exactly these shades of grey in which Berman excels and thrives. It is a skill -- and damn near an art form -- to be able to move among the shadows and Washington's land of a thousand different agendas. And that's right where Berman had steered EFF.
However, it's not where the EFF board thought the organization belonged.
And so, in a few days the Net community will read a grand announcement in which EFF and Jerry Berman state they've had a "mutual parting of the ways." The announcement will be several fold, including:
Johnson said he was excited about the new policy efforts he would be heading up for EFF, which, in addition to the "State of the Net" report, includes commissioning papers and studies to help build a more solid idea of what exactly constitutes the Net "community" on a global basis and helping to define the Net's community as recognizable legal entity.
In addition to the new policy efforts, Johnson will have to restock EFF's policy department: All the EFF policy wonks have jumped ship, resigning their positions and joining with Berman's new venture.
The upheaval at EFF -- which included moving the entire operation here to new digs in Washington -- apparently hasn't hurt morale which has "never been higher," Taubman said.
Underscoring Taubman's remarks is EFF's on-line legal council Mike Godwin, who said the changes "create an opportunity for us to return to our more populist mission and vision that we started with."
All Things Being Equal
Adversity for a political junkie is the warp and woof of Washington culture. Berman is no worse for the wear, having parachuted out of EFF and into his new organization. He said CDT will be differ from EFF "on what to emphasize." That emphasis will be to focus on "on the ground public policy," he said.
And it won't only be Berman's staff that sets the scene for familiarity as he jump starts CDT. The former EFF policy staffers will supply him with horsepower and his political currency will open doors. But he needs cold hard cash to feed the troops and pay the rent.
That means his new organization must have financial backing and here, too, there are no strangers. Berman's bringing along a fair chunk of EFF's corporate sponsors to his new home.
Companies providing seed money to Berman's CDT include AT&T, Bell Atlantic, Nynex, Apple Computer and Microsoft. These same companies provided a combined $235,000 in donations to EFF in 1993, minus Nynex, which wasn't listed as a major donor (over $5,000) on EFF's tax returns.
It's not known if these companies will continue to fund EFF in full or in part or what amount they have pledged to Berman's group. Just how well-heeled CDT is and exactly who makes up the full roster of its sponsorship remains to be seen. We'll know that after the organization files its first tax returns, which will be a matter of public record.