MOST POLITICAL ACTION COMMITTEES try to influence government policy by giving away money. The Information Policy Action Committee is going one step further: It's giving away iPods. If it works, it could lead to whole new form of lobbying.
Formed by technology advocates rankled by the expanding powers of copyright, patent and trademark holders, IPAC (get it?) is but a dust speck in the universe of big-money politics. It donated about $2,000 to candidates in 2004, compared with $5.3 million from entertainment industry groups. IPAC says it has much greater ambitions for the midterm elections, including providing cash to the opponents of three or four Luddite incumbents. Chances are that it won't come close to matching the entertainment industry's star power — who's going to draw more people to a fundraiser, Hollywood starlets or open-source software gurus? — but with any luck its unusual tactics could open some minds in Washington.
Earlier this year, IPAC began raising money to buy video iPods for senators. This month, it donated its first devices to the campaign committees of a dozen members of the Senate Commerce Committee.
It's a savvy approach from at least two perspectives. One, it tries to work around Senate rules, which ban gifts to lawmakers if they're worth more than $50. Two, it's not simply free stuff, which is what gets people in Washington in trouble so often. (Anyone remember a guy named Duke Cunningham?) This is free stuff with a purpose. The goal is to give lawmakers, all of whom were born long before erstwhile colleague Al Gore even dreamed of inventing the Internet, a taste of unbridled technological innovation. With their new iPods, senators will be able to scroll through some of the abstract issues at the heart of the disputes between technology advocates and the entertainment industry.
Unfortunately, this point was lost on two senators, John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), whose campaign committees returned the iPods without comment. A third senator, Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), rejected hers because she doesn't accept PAC donations.
Nevertheless, there's evidence that IPAC's approach may actually work. At a hearing on anti-piracy legislation this year, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who is 82, revealed that his daughter had recently given him an iPod. He then got into a debate with the head of the Recording Industry Assn. of America over whether he should be able to record songs off the radio for personal use.
That's just the kind of question lawmakers ought to be asking. If owning an iPod is enough to prompt that kind of inquiry, then IPAC should send one to every member of Congress. Maybe it could throw in some TiVos too, along with a few Wi-Fi powered phones. And a 15-year-old kid for tech support.