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We the Watchdogs 

When I started writing about technology four years ago, I initially had the same reaction to the burgeoning industry that many high-tech journalists spew every week: "Wow."

But my approach has shifted: I'm no longer a rah-tech columnist; now I'm a tech critic. Does that mean I'm a Luddite? Of course not. Our household has a Mac for every day of the week (and PCs, and Palms, and CD burners and five golden rings ... ).

Like with any communications/prosperity medium, we should all be watchdogs of technology, especially as the next millennium approaches in 2001. Technology is driving our economy, contributing to an economic gap and driving worldwide trade practices for better or worse. We must do more than defend our favorite operating system; we should contemplate the lasting effects of today's technology decisions. To that end, resolve to consider the following high-tech issues:

1. Closing the digital divide. Techcos like to proclaim how they're helping close the gap between the tech haves and have-nots. Some of those efforts are real; others marketing fluff. Consumers must keep our eyes on this prize. It's simple: We now have a new tool with the power to leave whole segments of the population out of the new prosperity. Equal access is imperative. If we allow this gap to continue growing, we'll be looking at increased crime and poverty down the road that someone (read: tax money) will need to address. It's a no-brainer.

2. Online censorship. We cannot allow politicians to "clean up" the Internet in an effort to draw votes. The U.S. Supreme Court already struck down the bipartisan Communications Decency Act, which would have censored smut off the Internet. The Internet, the court said, is as protected speech as any other medium. It is up to parents to influence their children's Internet activity and their reaction to it, just as with any printed material. Throw this red herring back into the river now.

3. Hate sites. Likewise, Americans cannot allow fear of bigotry to justify efforts to drive distasteful content, such as kkk.com and godhatesfags.com, offline. Again, speech -- unless a specific threat of violence -- is protected whether we like it or not. The Internet is an opportunity to see inside the heads of bigots; it's certainly easier to visit than a secret Klan meeting somewhere. So use hate sites to educate yourself and your families -- and remember that Nazis have the right to march in Skokie, Ill., even in cyberspace.

4. Privacy. The Internet is opening our eyes to big-business co-optation of our personal information. Yes, much of this "marketing" has been going on for years without many people noticing. But now our eyes are open, and we must let businesses and governments know that our private information is not available to the highest bidder. Just because Microsoft and Sun Microsystems think privacy is an outmoded concept doesn't mean we should blindly acquiesce.

5. E-commerce. Just as with corporate mega-stores, forsaking local businesses to spend all our money online can and will bite local economies in the butt. Make sure you're keeping as much wealth as possible at home.

6. Corporate bullying. Since Seattle's trade-talks fiasco, we know more about the environmental and human-rights impacts of the technology industry. Stay abreast: It is simply not OK for techcos to get free reign to abuse workers and pillage fresh water in other countries. "Free trade" needs some rules to live by.

7. Politicians held hostage. Pay attention to D.C. pledges to keep techcos free of regulation. The bottom line: These companies are not showing a willingness to self-regulate; if they don't choose to be good neighbors, government must stop them from trampling over the rights of everyday people.

Resolved: We will all pay more attention to vital high-tech issues in the upcoming years. You can still love your computer and be critical of technology policy. It's incumbent that you do. Happy new year.

E-mail comments to donna@shutup101.com.

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