Cybercitizen Jim

Jim Warren makes the Net safe for democracy

The views from Jim Warren's house can stretch to Monterey Bay, Mount Tamalpais and the top of the Golden Gate Bridge. But today, a dense fog saturates the Kings Mountain air, blotting all but the pine trees within 50 yards. So instead of watching the window, the cyberactivist situates himself in front of his Macintosh Quadra, peering at two giant monitors through the black frame glasses he uses for reading. With the squeal of a modem, he zaps a copy of his on-line newsletter, GovAccess, to thousands of individuals' e-mail addresses. About a hundred of those addresses are list servers themselves, which means that Warren's stirring First Amendment defenses are bounced to thousands more. Despite the stillness of the mountaintop and the finite visibility, Warren's views on Net censorship, encryption and privacy are almost infinite.

“It's amazing what just one person can do with the Net,” says Warren, swiveling his chair to the window. “It's the electric road on which Paul Revere can ride.”

If cyberspace represents a new frontier, then Warren is a pioneer. With roots that date back to the anti-war movement, Warren is a new breed of activist, a patriot who uses computers to aid in the most tedious and demanding aspects of organizing and grass-roots communication.

Computers have been good to Warren, and in return Warren is being good to them. After making a bundle in the computer industry, the 59-year-old has made an unpaid career out of public advocacy. And at the forefront of digital democracy, Warren proves that one person can make a difference, especially if he has a computer.

The self-professed computer nerd and former hippie is a one-man activist brigade who has used the Internet on a myriad of public-advocacy projects, including one that in 1993 resulted in California legislation that provides computer users with on-line access to the state's public records. Deploying his electronic black book of a few hundred names, Warren mobilized the on-line community to put faxes into the hands of committee members, urging them to support a bill that forced the state of California to make already computerized legislative information available to on-line users.

“Getting information digitally makes it very useful,” Warren explains as he props his feet up on a table stacked with software packaging. “It can be analyzed, indexed, cross-referenced, excerpted and otherwise evaluated in ways that are just not practical in paper form.”

Warren says computers are indispensable in sifting through the coarse bureaucratic filler to uncover the outrages contained in the fine print. The job is doable, he says, as long as the information has been digitized, whether it is liens filed at the Assessor's Office or the performance of law enforcement officials.

Sounding at turns like Ben Franklin, Tom Paine or Thomas Jefferson, Warren declares that free access to information and communication are imperative to a free society — and that the Net offers the perfect avenue for both. And despite the increasing accessibility of digital information from the government, Warren says there is always room for more.

“I would always rather have too much information than too little. I may not use all the information I have, but I will never use the information that I don't have,” he says.

Born in Oakland, and raised in Texas, Warren grew up poor, sleeping in the same bed as his father. He became interested in math at a junior college in San Antonio, Texas, and took a job teaching before he finished his degree. Eventually, Warren finished his bachelor's and a master's at the University of Texas, but burned out on Texas and returned to California.

“There was nothing else I could tolerate in Texas,” he says.
Warren ended up teaching math at the College of Notre Dame and spent his weekends in Berkeley, where he became part of the of the free-speech ferment there. He latched onto the anti-war crowd, the drug set and the mid-Peninsula nudist world, and it was the nude parties written up in Playboy and the Chronicle and aired on the BBC that cost him his job at the all-girls college. (Never one to abandon principles, the four-head shower at Warren's sumptuous Kings Mountain pad offers a walk-out deck so the squeaky-clean can dry themselves outside.)

When a friend from the Stanford Medical Center offered him a job programming mainframe computers, the erstwhile utopian studies teacher at the MidPeninsula Free University embraced the opportunity. Though he had little experience with computers, he was a quick study and soon found himself caught up in the early years of the PC revolution after even more postgraduate work. As the editor of Dr. Dobb's Journal of Computing, one of the early computer users' magazines, Warren was a regular member of the budding meetings of the Homebrew computing club, the stomping grounds of Apple's Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.

While the computer world blossomed, Warren got involved with a couple of lucrative projects, including the Intelligent Machines Journal (IMJ is pig Latin for Jim) and a trade show called the West Coast Computer Faire. Intelligent Machines Journal became InfoWorld when Warren sold it in 1979. He also unloaded the Computer Faire in 1983, he says, because he didn't like “getting caught up with the bean counters and moving away from my fellow nerds.”

With the proceeds, Warren built his home on the 40-acre Kings Mountain property in 1983; he returned to public activism because of a building inspector he says was trying to run a police state. Since he had the time and the resources, Warren butted heads with San Mateo County and published pieces in a few local newspapers demanding that the county dump the notoriously unfair planning director and building inspector. The effort was successful, and Warren returned his attention to writing columns for various computer magazines, a practice the workaholic continues today.

Operation Sundevil, a high-publicity, nationwide crackdown on computer hackers in 1990, caused Warren to organize the Conference on Computers, Freedom and Privacy. The event gathered together 400 participants, including indicted computer hackers, convicted phone phreaks and national civil liberties activists, as well as officials from the NSA, FBI and CIA. The event was a huge success, garnering more than 100 pages of print in international publications from Der Spiegel and Time. Bruce Sterling, a cyberpunk/sci-fi writer, called the groundbreaking event “mind-boggling” in his book The Hacker Crackdown.

For a self-professed “political irritant,” Warren doesn't really irritate many. He stumbles when he tries to name his detractors, citing one out-of-work building inspector and an otherwise vague list: “snoop-and-peep fed policy folks, something-for-nothing Bayside land-grab activists and politically correct sexists.”

Warren says the very nature of the Net prevents things from getting too nasty. “One of the neat things about the Net is that it only works for a cause that is just — a cause that can stand up to public scrutiny. The Net doesn't keep secrets for shit.”

Bruce Koball, a Berkeley computer consultant and the chair of the Third Conference on Computers, Freedom and Privacy, says Warren is deserving of every bit of respect that comes his way.

“There's a selflessness about him. Of course he's fortunate to be wealthy from his entrepreneurialism; many in his position would try to make more money or move away to an island. Instead, Jim uses his ability and his freedom to do things for the common good.”

These days, Warren busies himself by reading his hundred-odd e-mail messages a day and helping cryptographer Phil Zimmerman, who was indicted by the federal government for exporting the Pretty Good Protection encryption software. Warren may become the chief witness for the defense. He also belongs to a “blue-ribbon panel” that has proposed that campaign finance disclosures be placed on-line. Campaign finances are the “gonads of government,” he says, noting for the benefit of hesitant Assembly members that on-line disclosures will help them by giving a clear view of their opponents' contributions.

Warren's activism has not gone unnoticed. So far, his work has earned him the Hugh Hefner First Amendment Award from the Playboy Foundation, and a Pioneer Award from the Electronic Freedom Foundation, the much-hyped civil rights in cyberspace organization founded by former Lotus developer Mitch Kapor.

As a pioneer, Warren says he loves trying to make things better for tomorrow than they are today.

“It is important to me to do something that you feel good about doing,” says Warren. “If you're lucky, you can make a positive contribution. I have been lucky.”

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