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It's no exaggeration to say that Ralph Nader launched the modern consumer movement. He emerged on the national stage with the publication of his 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed, which detailed automobile manufacturers' reckless resistance to safety measures.
Nader used his prominence to attract an army of citizen activists — "Nader's Raiders" — who joined the battle against corporate and governmental misbehavior. He started the advocacy group Public Citizen as "the people's voice in the nation's capital," and also the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
His activism led him into launching three presidential campaigns — but, the 78-year-old avows, not a fourth one in 2012.
Nader was famous for his technological asceticism — no car, no telephone. Still, you might surmise that he'd be excited about the explosion of communications technology for its usefulness in bringing power to aroused consumers. You'd be wrong. Nader views the breakthroughs in telecommunications often as distractions rather than tools of empowerment. It's no easier to mobilize consumers today, he says, than in his low-tech heyday.
In his mind, these advances in technology also carry downsides — notably, by making citizens more vulnerable to corporations employing sophisticated tools to mine personal data and invade privacy. These are dangers that Nader knows firsthand. In the 1960s, automobile executives sought to silence him through investigations and harassment; his lawsuit for invasion of privacy cost General Motors $425,000 and a CEO's apology. The better the technology, Nader worries now, the easier for corporations to transgress.
Edited interview excerpts follow.
Are consumers empowered by new technology?
NADER: Yes and no. It is easier to get information, including comparative information about products and services simply because it is a mechanism of easy retrieval. There are two kinds of groups on the Internet — one, "GM sucks" — sort of complaint pits, which upset the companies no end. But I don't know whether it actually gets much change.
Then there is something else. Change.org takes it to the next stage. They have the mechanisms to go viral. The reason why it was much more effective in the old days: No. 1, you had media that stayed with the story. They weren't just looking for a big feature for a Pulitzer Prize and then drop the issue. The second is, you had very responsive members of Congress. [Today,] you don't have a consumer-advocacy group documenting the pattern of abuse and then congressional hearings, proposed legislation, and consistent mass-media coverage.
Although reports of bad behavior quickly go viral today, you say advocates back then could force more change?
NADER: Of course. Corporations now have locked down Washington. They have locked down the Congress. They have locked down the regulatory agencies. They have put their executives in charge of departments and agencies. They are buying or renting both parties.
But Bank of America and others caved when complaints about new fees went viral.
NADER: So they cave on the five bucks [for the debit fee but] get it in another way — raise the bounced check fee a buck.
Hasn't social media empowered citizens?
NADER: [It has] given citizens an unparalleled, historic opportunity to electronically gossip over trivia. Now, you have to ask the consumer to take something out of their ear or to stop thumbing their iPhone in order to hear [you]. And let me tell you: If you are on the street petitioning, a third of the people don't even hear you.
The computer has become a net consumer menace. You can fight back a little bit over the Internet, but it has empowered corporations far more than consumers.
Do you have a computer?
NADER: No. No computer. No iPhone. I do admit to an Underwood typewriter. When the lights go off and the electricity is ruptured, I am still working. My colleagues are not.
Might technology promote economic democracy?
NADER: Yes, if it is consumer-driven technology. Technology has no moral imperative. It depends who controls it.
The author is a contributing editor to National Journal.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal and part of our Next Economy coverage.