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Congress at your Fingertips – how MS lobbies via the Web

A fascinating and intricate machine is marshalling support

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MS on Trial Microsoft's addition of a write-in campaign facility to Windows Update (Earlier Story) is interesting enough, but if you check out how the campaign is being run, who's running it, and what the objectives are, it gets even more interesting. You don't need Windows 98 or even Internet Explorer to play, because the Microsoft Freedom to Innovate campaign is also accessible from the front door of microsoft.com. Go there and you can do a couple of things. One is subscribe to the Freedom to Innovate newsletter, but even here Microsoft doesn't seem able to stop compiling lists of people to sell things to. Try to subscribe and you get the message: "Microsoft has created a new level of security that requires you to establish a Registration ID. You will be using your Registration ID to obtain many Microsoft products or services." Not just get a newsletter, apparently. Never mind, move on to the next choice, write to Congress. This takes you through to a page tagged "Powered by Capitol Advantage," and it's external to the Microsoft site. We should stress at this point that Capitol Advantage includes a link to its home page here, where it's perfectly open about the kind of organisation it is. Essentially, it has been retained by Microsoft to run a Web-based write in campaign. The company says it is largest publisher of Congressional directories, and in addition it is the developer of CapitolWiz, "a grassroots legislative action tool in use on hundreds of corporation, association, and media organisation Web sites." It has over 250 online clients, has the humorous (considering the name of one of the clients) slogan of "Congress at your Fingertips," (Linux sites get busted for this sort of thing, not retained), and it gives star billing to three clients, AOL (more irony), Yahoo and Microsoft. Via CapitolWiz, Capitol Advantage is essentially engaged in an online implementation of grassroots advocacy. This form of activity involves marshalling support for clients by identifying favourable individuals, giving them a thorough-going (and usually somewhat spun) briefing on the subject in question and then firing them up to make their views known to legislators. Congress at your Fingertips, as they say. Capitol describes CapitolWiz: "This award-winning grassroots legislative action tool allows you to notify your web site's visitors of important legislative events and mobilise them to take action (i.e. contact their congressional representatives by e-mail, phone, fax or letter). Users are even able to check the status of specific legislation and see recorded vote results in the Votes Library." In the case of the Microsoft-Capitol arrangement, Microsoft's site handles the softening-up and spinning process, and is effectively sifting readers - given the nature of the content only committed Freedom to Innovate partisans are likely to click through to Capitol. The company's system provides you with an easy mechanism for identifying your congress representative, and for writing a letter, and sending by email or snail. Disappointingly, although CapitolWiz allows the clients to "customise the site with your pre-written letters, legislative alerts, votes or bills of interest and more," Microsoft seems not to have taken the risk of writing sample letters and then having us take the mickey out of them. This may of course turn out to be a mistake, considering the link is now on Windows Update. People who don't cheer for Microsoft aren't likely to go anywhere near Freedom to Innovate, but as one reader pointed out to us earlier today, people who're at the Update site because they're trying to fix a broken installation are more likely to want to send Congress 'string him up!' letters. All this lobbying activity of course is perfectly legal, and perfectly respectable. Capitol is simply provided tools to its customers, and the tools are neutral, even though the customer will always use them to grind axes. By the way, if you want an exquisitely timed explanation of grassroots advocacy from the Masters, here's what the NRA has to say about it.But strangely, the NRA doesn't seem to have fully graduated to a Web equivalent yet. ®

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