How to write to your representatives
There are some things you should always bear in mind when writing to your MP, Senators, or Congressional representatives, but if you're writing about the internet, believe me, it's going to take even more care. Here are a few tips:
You've learned about an action taken by the authorities or a plan being promoted by your representative's party, and you've decided it's time to give them a piece of your mind - but you don't want to sound like a ranting nut, and you may not even be sure who to write to, or where.
So first, a little research is in order. In the UK, you can find out who your local member of Parliament is by phoning the House of Commons (020 7219-3000) and asking who represents your area. Then you can write to your MP at:
House of Commons
Remember that many MPs are not comfortable with electronic media and may respond better to hard-mail even if their office has an e-mail address. Generally speaking, a single hard-copy letter is worth more than 20 e-mails. Everyone knows how much easier it is to send e-mail than to send hard-copy, and they take you more seriously if you put it on paper. (It will usually be worth more than any petition, too.)
The same is still true in America. If you want to write to your federal, state or local representatives, you will get far more mileage out of a letter they can read on paper. Faxes are probably okay, but Bill Clinton is said to be most responsive to snail-mail letters written by hand - consider this method if your handwriting is good. If you want to know who your representatives are, call your local League of Women Voters and they will give you the information.
(When writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper or magazine, cleanly-typed letters are much preferred, since they will have to be re-typed. And do write those letters - the more they get, the more they will realize that there is an audience for your point of view. Some publications, obviously, will prefer e-mail, since it saves them having to re-type. But this still isn't true of all of them.)
Your name, address, and phone number should be clearly written at the top of your letter; your representatives need to see that you are in their constituency, and where to respond by snail-mail or phone (which may be their preferred method). It is also a good idea to ask (if you can possibly find the time), whether there is some way you can meet with your representative personally about the matter. In Britain, MPs hold local "surgery" on a regular basis, or can be visited in the House of Commons itself.
Now, carefully go over whatever proposal or statement you are responding to and jot down any important points that you think should be made. Then think carefully about what sort of nonsense your own representative is likely to support/believe, and sum up the counter-arguments.
If your own representative's beliefs are not known to you, it might be a good idea to do a little research first. It may help to tailor some of your points to that person's beliefs - there's no point in making an anti-censorship argument to Anne Winterton or Mitch McConnell, for example, but you might be able to use some economic arguments or complaints about the misuse of your money as a taxpayer. Chris Smith or Barney Frank, on the other hand, will be more likely to respond to arguments about what it means to make it illegal to discuss homosexuality on the internet (as per the French letter); you could point out that ratings-based software is likely to make it harder for gay teenagers to get information on their own sexuality.
Knowing the party may help, of course. No major UK party, however, has shown any real interest in freedom of speech, so knowing the particular prejudices of the MP can be very helpful. Tony Benn (Labour) is one of the few MPs who has actually publicly stated that he opposes censorship. But Stephen Timms (Labour), on the other hand, has made embarrassing statements on the subject and seems to believe that us poor weak-willed women and helpless minorities can't defend ourselves verbally, so we have to be "protected". Even Chris Smith (Labour) has been making pro-censorship noises. But what this is really about is the government wanting control of your speech. The Tories have never opposed that and New Labour has proven to be just as impervious to civil liberties arguments. It's best to avoid arguments that are too sophisticated for people who are hostile to even thinking about it.
The Democratic Party used to be the most responsive to free speech arguments, but it isn't wise to take this for granted. Only one Republican voted against the Communications Decency Act (CDA) in the whole of Congress, but the list of Democratic votes against it wasn't as long as it should have been, either.
However, if you know of a specific argument that has been made by your own rep, you might want to counter it on their own terms. For example, if your representative tends to be "PC", you could point out that women on Usenet may have an advantage, since women are often better at going for the jugular verbally than men are, and the lack of physical presence - and personal exposure - removes any physical threat. Or you could express dismay at the assumption "some people" have that black people are too stupid to defend themselves in arguments on the net.
Decide what the most important points to make are and try to write them out as tersely as possible - without leaving anything sounding too vague. Do not use technical jargon unless you feel you have to, and when you do, try to explain what you are talking about in as unpatronizing a way as possible. Use standard style with acronyms:
"American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)" - Never introduce an acronym without first spelling it out, and always put the acronym in parentheses immediately after the first use.
You may sometimes find it useful to explain a techie term that is commonly used in, but not well-understood by, the media, such as "Internet" or "paedophile". You might do something similar as with acronyms - describe what the thing is before putting the term in parens after it - or you can refer to the way the media misuses the term and explain the difference, if that is easier - but DO NOT imply that your representative is dumb enough to believe what the media says. Not, "You may have fallen for the crap the media spews about..." but "It is frustrating to me that the media misleads the public by implying..."
Do the same with intellectual points - don't ascribe views you obviously think are stupid to your rep, but merely express displeasure that certain other people are promoting those stupid views.
In other words, be respectful of the vast knowledge and intelligence of your representative while still explaining things you feel a 10-year-old should already know.
If you are addressing a point your representative has actually made, soft-pedal it even while you are criticizing it: "I was disappointed to learn that you said..." rather than, "How could you say a dumb thing like...!?" You might even suggest that the press must have misreported her/his statement (unfortunately, this is frequently the case). But be careful not to make this sound like sarcasm.
All of this, by the way, is a very tall order when talking about the Internet. A considerable part of the argument is certainly technical, and some of the jargon is unavoidable - especially as it is misused in the media. You want to dilute the technical content of your letter as much as you possibly can, but you still don't want to make your letter any longer than you absolutely have to.
It's often a good idea to use analogies that refer to familiar things - compare the internet with libraries, e-mail with hard-mail, and so on. For example, Whitfield Diffie suggests that governmental attempts to restrict encryption are as absurd as a demand that we send all our letters in transparent envelopes. And Wendy Grossman notes that everyone already has a method of anonymous communication - at the corner postbox.
Also, try to avoid making technical points too early. You will get your representative's attention earlier if you start off with easily accessible information and argument.
Naturally, the same holds true when writing about any other issue with its own jargon. Sadomasochists should be very careful about using words that are well-understood in the SM community (such as "dominance" or "sadism") but may be perceived as meaning something unsavory in common parlance (like "overbearing" or "brutality"). Again, arguments about the waste of taxpayers' money and misuse of police resources may be more compelling, and seem more popular to your representative, than any discussion of diversity or freedom. Know who you are writing to.
This doesn't mean you shouldn't make civil liberties-based arguments, too. It doesn't hurt to remind them that some people still value freedom.
Now, address that envelope. This is where netizens usually are the weakest; we've become far too used to the ease of e-mail.