Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 1, Number 5 / September 1, 1994 / Page 9

Issue Management in a Networked world: The Case of "Clipper"

by Andrew P. Dinsdale (

Continued from page 8

Defining and Enacting the Issue

Public relations and issues management literature helps define what the EFF and the other groups were attempting to achieve. According to Long and Hazelton (1987), "Public relations is a communication function of management through which organizations adapt to, alter, or maintain their environment for the purpose of achieving organizational goals" (p. 6). Crable and Vibbert state, "The to take an issue through its life cycle so that it is resolved in directions favorable to the organization...the organization's first task is situation assessment. Assessing the situation means that the organization must look both at itself and its environment" (p. 3-4) The application of this perspective helps in clarifying the aims of EFF.

The environment is a web of interacting constituents and controls that affect how organizations exist. By identifying these components, certain aspects of the issue will be identified that can be influenced and potential goals created based on an appreciation of the organizations finite resources.

EFF is a small organization that relies on independently wealthy board members, volunteers, consultants and a growing constituency of members and supporters. Financially, EFF has a $1.5 million annual budget procured from its own board (about 20%), private and corporate donations. They are based in Washington, D.C. where they have presence in the locale of the policy makers and naturally they maintain a strong presence in the virtual world. Via an Internet connection members of the public can log into EFF server computers and download information. EFF currently has three Sun Microsystems machines hosting mail and news servers, file transfer protocol, gopher, and World Wide Web services. They also have presence on Bulletin Boards as well as on online forums such as America Online and the WELL (S. McCandlish -, personal communication, June 17, 1994).

Compared to the vast resources of the NSA, NIST and White House the Foundation must balance strategy with very finite resources. Careful assessment of both the environment and the organization would have highlighted the need to develop feasible and reachable goals. The goal of EFF in regard to Clipper was clearly to manage the "creation" of an issue (Crable & Vibbert, 1985) by increasing their own leverage through media coverage and using the Internet.

The creation of virtual environments based on interconnections of communication technology and the developing legal constraints on hackers led to EFF's inception in the first place. Advancements in cryptology and the moves of the NSA and the Administration have influenced EFF's strategy. Finally, the dependency on media coverage to inform the general public and the final influence these voters have on influencing policy introduces even more participants from the environment.

Activist groups cannot "agenda-set" in the McCombs and Shaw definition of the term and they cannot make policy decisions themselves. They can become "agenda-stimuli" and encourage coverage and debate. In fact EFF have taken several steps and set realistic goals, urging individuals and organizations opposing "Clipper" to take real and quantifiable steps.

EFF now suggests that the Clipper Chip is a potential first step towards a mandatory and government controlled encryption system. They appear to have refined the "issue" into a new imminent phase, with the critical phase being the enforcement of Clipper and the NSA becoming a type of Data Police. This represents a catalytical strategy of change, where EFF defines/creates issues, sets goals and captures media attention (Crable & Vibbert, 1985). EFF now frames the issue in differing terms, each digestible by the different environmental constituents (media, businesses, Internet citizens, general public and Congress) who might effect change.

The growing recognition and voice of EFF has led to the media seeing more legitimacy in their messages. The press now looks to Barlow, Berman and Kapor for interviews and statements. Further, the media is treating the "Information Superhighway" as "newsworthy" and now recognizes it as an issue by the public. Defining encryption in terms of "privacy" (EFF's stance) as opposed to "security" is being met with support by the general public.

To influence Congress and businesses, the Clipper issue is defined in terms of the effect on the economy. A current export embargo has made it economically impossible for manufacturers to incorporate encryption in products for either the domestic or international market. At the moment, high quality encryption is not being built into operating systems and basic software packages because companies, such as IBM and Microsoft would have to make separate products for export due to a military classification of encryption. This threatens the position of U.S. computer companies in world markets where currently they are the leaders (J. Gilmore, listserv mediated communication, June 14, 1994).

Finally, to the millions of Internet users EFF has taken an offensive position and has "defined" the clipper controversy in Orwellian terms. A Barlow essay, Jackboots on the Infobahn, written for the hacking and computer culture magazine Wired, was widely disseminated over the Internet prior to its paper publication. Users of the Internet forwarded it to friends, colleagues and discussion lists. Barlow played heavily on the Internet culture of freedom and anarchy (used in terms of no entity controls the Internet, a virtual network of millions of computer users). Cultural resonance is created by the "Big Brother" metaphors and the creation of dramas - Spy vs. Nerd, as the public likes the idea of an underdog taking on the ominous NSA - this has appealed to the readers of Internet discussion lists and led to mass media coverage.

The lack of a visual referent has been recognized by EFF but they have stressed the Constitution/Privacy argument and encouraged the use of the Internet as a tool for protest. Specifically, Internet users were encouraged to sign the CPSR online petition opposing the Clipper Chip by sending the message "I oppose Clipper" to (see Dave Banisar, "Electronic Petition to Oppose Clipper") and were asked to support Rep. Maria Cantwell's bill that would eliminate the export embargo by sending the message "support H.R. 3627" to

As a result, on May 18, the Cantwell bill passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee by being incorporated into the Export Administration Act of 1994, H.R. 3937. This portion of the bill faced further scrutiny by House Select Committee on Intelligence, EFF made another appeal for its supporters to use Fax and E-mail to ask this committee to keep cryptography export liberalization intact but Cantwell's provisions were stripped from the Act. When the House Rules Committee met to decide which committee took precedent EFF again called for action. Also, the move to put the White House online has itself led to the EFF and CPSR supporters writing to

These moves generated even more media attention and a lot of Internet activity that have proven successful. Weick (1979) might argue that both EFF and CPSR enacted their direct environment by imposing an order on their world through their actions. The Internet is a near perfect communication tool and by encouraging the Internet users to take an active part in the policy process they not only built support and a longer list of names on the petition but further reduced the boundary between the external environment and organizations.

The boundary between the organization and its environment is "problematic" (Aldrich & Herker, 1977, p. 218) and the organization needs to reconcile this through boundary spanning. This includes processing information from the environment and representation to the environment. EFF's Boundary role personnel may examine the media, changes in the law and watch for changes in opinion on the Internet. The act of selecting what is important and transmitting what is necessary to the right person requires expertise. With online search techniques, electronic mail systems and the move to put more and more documents online EFF needs to be acutely aware of information overload.

One of the major roles of EFF boundary spanners is to take reports of government bills and amendments, summarize them so they are meaningful and disseminate them in a timely manner to supporters and constituents. EFF is in effect serving as a mediator of information between Congress and the public. Aldrich and Herker also identified that organizations in dynamic, heterogeneous environments and facing many non-members will require substantially more boundary positions. The empowering capabilities of the Internet have made it relatively easy for EFF to keep in contact with constituents in the external environment.

The use of Electronic mail for this type of communication was innovative and yet natural. EFF and CPSR helped thousands of users of the Internet to reduce equivocality and produce a group grammar ("support H.R. 3627" and "I oppose Clipper") using the very tool (the Internet) they were seeking to protect. By deciding to send these messages individuals external to the organizations gave further legitimacy to both CPSR and EFF. The EFF mission was to protect the privacy of the individual in Cyberspace. To many Cyberspace is a metaphor that conjures up images of digital linkages and whirring 3D polygons in a Virtual Reality - In real life (rl), however, efforts by EFF have created a consensus felt among many users of the Internet that it is a place - a unified community of 30 million people.

Internet users are in continuous dialogue with one another through newsgroups and discussion lists, online forums and virtual worlds. Look at current newsgroups allows a novice to locate discussions on Clipper; alt.privacy, alt.privacy.clipper, alt.activism, alt.politics.datahighway,, sci.crypt, and news:comp.society.privacy (the prefix "alt" denotes alternative subject matter, "sci" means science, "comp" is for computing topics). Further, Internet based Clipper archives house information that allow users to keep up to date on developments. A function of such resources has been to link EFF to target groups in the environment in a highly visible way (Aldrich & Herker, 1977, p.221) - online activists for EFF constantly post to newsgroups and discussion lists.

These continuous conversations help reduce equivocality further and participants enact one interpretation and organize responses and actions. Weick (1979) suggests that organizing is a "consensually validated grammar for reducing equivocality by means of sensible interlocked behaviors" (p. 3). This interactive process of creating and rationalizing information (sense making) is manifest on the Internet due to the ability for two-way, one-to-many, and many-to-many dialogues; organizing is a communication process.

The virtual presence of EFF on the Internet has helped develop this "Frontier" as a place worth protecting. The issue of protecting privacy, however, relates to telephones, faxes and future innovations in interactive television and entertainment as much as it does to E-mail and Computer Mediated Communication. EFF though, literally constructed the environment as a problem for users of the Internet through an opinion leadership function. They now exert influence in Cyberspace akin to the influence of the New York Times on the news environment. As a communication medium, the Internet. in this case, has managed to flatten hierarchies and reduce the power of the media to agenda set and the government to exclude participation. With 30 million users, moving the debate to the Internet was an encouraging step in making Clipper an issue in the public domain.

The desired goal was simply making Clipper unpopular to the citizens and Congress, Stanton McCandlish of EFF stated the outcome could be:

  1. Clipper is simply d.o.a.(dead on arrival); or
  2. Clipper gets thru all the hurdles and is approved for wide production, but due to other factors, is useless and ignored (e.g. crypto export restrictions lifted, funding blocked in Congress, etc.) We are working toward both - we hope to kill Clipper outright, but because this is unlikely, we are also trying to make the environment as hostile to it as possible in the event that the Administration gets its way on this issue." (personal communication, June 17, 1994).
A hostile environment will be created if EFF succeeds in encouraging businesses and individuals to adopt other forms of strong encryption, such as the free and easily accessible Phillip Zimmerman's RSA based PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) Software and if the media continues to show support for EFF's stance. Such an environmental reaction will create market forces that will severely reduce the effectiveness of the Clipper proposal.

General systems theory applied to organizations considers the importation of energy from the environment, the through-put or transformation of the imported energy into some product form which is characteristic of the system, the exporting of that product into the environment, and the reenergizing of the system from sources in the environment (Katz & Kahn, 1966). The importation and subsequent reenergizing act in delaying entropy. The environment also supplies information, or "feedback" to the organization which in turn legitimizes the actions of organizations.

Applying this concept to EFF allows us to view EFF as a creation of the environment. The paths chosen to make Clipper an issue are dictated by the communication tools (media and Internet) available, the policy process and the other participants in the political, social, economic and legal environments. By accepting EFF's outputs (rhetoric, information, advice and opinion) and actions the environment have increased the legitimacy of EFF. As a result of their efforts EFF has seen noted increases in members, supporters, resources, and press coverage; all inputs that delay entropy and enable organizational survival. An organization must constantly update its knowledge of the environment through boundary spanning and the power of the Internet for information collection and dissemination must be noted.


In creating an issue out of the Clipper debate EFF has relied on its external environment to provide information, resources and legitimation. The strong stance EFF (and other groups) have taken has enabled for public participation in debates concerning the construction of the National Information Infrastructure. EFF came into existence to insure that privileges embodied in the Constitution be extend to Cyberspace. The novel and newsworthy nature of Cyberspace and the drama produced with reference to Big Brother and individual privacy rights has caught the attention of the media and several million Internet users. Since February, 1994 the issue has become current and critical and will remain in this stage until individuals and businesses feel comfortable with transmitting and storing so much information in digital forms.

The influence and role of the mass media is still to be fully utilized by EFF. The legitimizing function the press plays in an issue and the fact that Congress representatives read the New York Times more than alt.privacy.clipper suggests that a more pro-active media strategy is needed. The Clipper debate is complex and involves and understanding of cryptography, telecommunications and even the Congressional process. A function of EFF is to summarize information so potential supporters can act upon it, be they members of Congress, reporters, hackers or the general public.

The Clipper issue fitted perfectly into the EFF mission and helped the organization become defined and known to the public. By having to come forward and protect hackers and privacy the EFF has put itself into a position to one day build an Internet political party based on the support of several million Internet users. They have recognized that the Internet allows more than just dissemination of information but overcomes economies of scale and allows for new methods of organizing without rigidities.

The first example of issue management fully utilizing the technology of the Internet was the Clipper Chip controversy. Issues are no longer dependent on the mass media to pick up, popularize and set the agenda. Rather, the technology of the Information Highway has meant direct access to information and ability to communicate concerns and interests directly. Presently, only those issues which are important to computer users might be picked up this way. In the near future, as more people accept and use the Internet, issue management will be different and public participation in policy matters much greater. ¤

References Page

Article front page

Note: Since the completion of this essay, The White House has decided to take another look at Clipper and will not forge ahead with the system as proposed. For computer applications "Clipper" has been scrapped and even telephone usage delayed for several months (see EFF's letter, Stanton McCandlish, "White House retreats on Clipper" ). The international pressure on the Clinton-Gore administration reached incredible levels and the role of the Internet was paramount.

Andrew Dinsdale has completed Master's coursework in Organizational Communication at Wayne State University, Detroit. He maintains the Commercial Use (of the Net) Strategies Home Page and the Diversity University MOO web pages. He has contributed a chapter, "The Future of Web Commerce," to the forthcoming book, The World Wide Web Unleashed (Sams Publishing) [Ed. Note: See the note on the Editor's Page about this book]. He has also contributed to Michael Strangelove's forthcoming book, How To Advertise on the Internet: An Introduction to Internet-Facilitated Marketing and Advertising.

Copyright © 1994 Andrew P. Dinsdale. All Rights Reserved.

This Issue / Index