Let's start with Virginia. There, UCITA has been passed by the Legislature and is awaiting signature by Governor Jim Gilmore. But all is not yet lost. Skip Lockwood of 4cite.org says, "It is very important that the Governor, the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate all hear from dissatisfied consumers. Virginia has really put the 'horse before the cart' with the passage of this law. Call, e-mail and fax so that legislators know what a mistake they have made." And UCITA isn't scheduled to go into force in Virginia until next year, so there may be time to undo the damage. It's worth a try, certainly, even though UCITA is backed heavily both by Microsoft and Virginia's own "star" online business, AOL.
In Maryland, UCITA is is by no means a done deal. As House Bill #19 and Senate Bill #142, it is still being considered by legislative committees. This means UCITA could conceivably still be stopped in Maryland even before it came to a vote, although the forces working to push it through are both mighty and well-financed. One state senator told me this was the first time he'd ever seen actual lobbyists from Microsoft, in person, in Annapolis (Maryland's state capital). Many highly-paid "local" lobbyists are also cruising the legislative halls, busily telling the politicians why UCITA is a must-pass piece of legislation.
But apparently the lobbyists and their masters never told Maryland legislators exactly what UCITA was all about. I called the offices of all 13 members of the House of Delegates who are co-sponsoring Maryland UCITA, House Bill 19, and not one of them or any of their staff members to whom I spoke could tell me honestly that they had read the whole thing. All most of them seem to have read was this synopsis:
Adopting the Maryland Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act; establishing provisions of law applicable to agreements to create, modify, transfer, or distribute computer software, computer data and databases, Internet and online information, and computer information and products; establishing provisions of law applicable to licensing of computer information; etc.
But the bill goes just a little bit beyond this. If you have time (it's about 85 printed pages), here's the entire UCITA text.
Quite a difference, eh? If you actually read all the way through the document, you now know more than most of the Maryland legislators who are tasked with deciding whether or not it should be made into law.
The way things work here in Maryland - and in many other states - is that the heaviest political leaders call lesser politicians to whose campaigns they have donated or for whom they have done other favors and say, "I'm sending you a bill I want passed." If the lesser politician knows what's good for him or her, he or she salutes and follows orders, especially on somthing like UCITA, which is not an issue most ordinary citizens either understand or care about.
In my opinion, the single most politically powerful elected official in the State of Maryland is Casper R. Taylor, Jr., speaker of the House of Delegates. He consistently has one of the largest campaign fund "war chests" in the state and freely shares lucre from it with other legislators who support him. Mr. Taylor has personally assured me that the large sums of money he solicits - and gets - from assorted industry groups and other big donors do not influence his votes or buy his support. (I did not laugh out loud when he said this only because I am a professional journalist and have developed the ability to listen to almost any kind of outrageous statement without showing emotion. Please don't try this at home.)
Wherever you live in the U.S. (or almost anywhere else) there is a primary power broker like Taylor, and it is this person upon whom the Microsofts and AOLs and the Business Software Alliance and the rest of the big-money crowd will concentrate their efforts (and lavish funds). But don't think that people like Taylor are evil. They usually aren't, down deep inside, and if they get enough reasonable citizen input that opposes the lobbyists' desires, they can often be persuaded to do the right thing.
Guys like Casper Taylor actually like hearing from citizens; if they weren't basically gregarious and outgoing they wouldn't have gone into politics in the first place. If you don't believe me, give Casper a friendly call. His office phone number is 410-841-3800. If you don't live in Maryland, consider this a practice call for the UCITA fight that is likely to take place in your state sometime in the next year or two.
There are several things to bear in mind when calling a politician to express your opinion. The first is that yelling and acting nutsy gets you nowhere. Be sane and have *real reasons* handy for your opinion - and no, "because Richard Stallman doesn't like it" is not a good reason, because RMS is not widely-known in political circles. You need facts like the ones on this page. The second is to make sure you don't just say "UCITA." You need to refer to the correct bill number, in this case House Bill 19. Even if you speak to the lowest of Casper's underlings, and they only give you the chance to say, "I just want to ask Speaker Taylor to please withdraw his support for House Bill 19 because it is bad for consumers and will inhibit open source software development," you have done a good and valuable thing. A hundred brief calls can be worth more than $1000 in Microsoft lobbying money even if you feel like you haven't done much or that you were barely listened to.
Note that I mention phone calls, not e-mail. Politicians are generally more receptive to calls than to e-mails. They also like faxes (Taylor's fax number is 410-841-1138), but e-mail is still valid, as long as you only send one or two polite ones to each elected official you want to reach. (If you want to use Casper for a practice e-mail, send it to email@example.com.)
So we've contacted the most powerful guy. Fine. But there are other leaders who should also hear from you. In Maryland, in this case, some of the most important are Governor Parris Glendening, Senate President Mike Miller (to whom you should mention Senate Bill 142, not House Bill 19), and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer. All of them have complete contact information on their Web pages, as do almost all public officials everywhere.
If you live in Maryland, besides these people, you'll want to contact the representatives from your district. Find them here. If you live in another state and want to find out if UCITA is about to become a burning issue there, check this page. And, no matter where you live in the U.S., here's a list of state and local government Web sites that can not only help you fight UCITA, but help you find out what your elected officials are up to in general, and who to contact if you have a beef or want to get something done.
Dealing with politics and politicians can often make you feel like you're pushing into a wall of warm fuzz, especially if you spend most of your time dealing with machine-style logic where each specific cause has a specific effect. And I don't know about you, but reading the lawyer jargon in which most proposed laws are written gives me a headache.
But if you and I and a bunch of other people don't take the trouble to go through this headache over UCITA and other legislative actions that directly affect our lives and livings, rest assured that Microsoft and the other companies and industry groups on "the other side" will keep slogging along, making sure their views get heard as loudly and strongly and often as possible.
And when your legislators hear from the industry groups and lobbyists over and over, and hear nothing from you, they will not only pass UCITA and other laws you don't like, but they'll be perfectly justified when they smugly say, afterwards, "Almost everyone I heard from about this matter was in favor of it!"