Nov 15

JETAA NY Newsletter: Bringing Power Back to the People One Call at a Time — Shaun Dakin’s (Shimane-ken, 1989-91) Fight Against Intrusive Political Calls

Interview by Stacy Smith (CIR Kumamoto-ken, 2000-03)

Although JET Alum Shaun Dakin (ALT, Shimane 1989-91) grew up overseas, his first time in Asia was living in Japan.  He spent two years there, an experience that would go on to shape his future as well as that of his family.  Shaun shared with the JETAA Newsletter the unlikely connection between his time as an English teacher on JET and the non-profit organization National Political Do Not Contact Registry ( opposing political robocalls,where he is CEO.

Q: What led you to join the JET Program?
A: My reasons for going on JET were adventure and the chance to live in Asia.  I grew up in Africa and Europe (Libya, Kenya, Nigeria and the U.K.) and was looking to get to Asia to experience something I never had before.  JET was a hot thing to do so I did it.

Q: Is what you do now related to your time in Japan?
A: Not directly, though the skills I picked up while on JET certainly helped me throughout my life.  The program taught me how to have self confidence in a new environment, as well as how to write.  When I was there I actually had to write letters to friends to keep in touch (there was no e-mail at the time), and phone calls to the U.S. were once a month if that.  Finally and perhaps most importantly I grew to love Japan, the Japanese and of course Japanese food!  My experience impacted not only my life but my younger brother’s as well.  He came to visit me during JET and was so inspired by his time there that he went on to major in East Asian Studies at Princeton University and even had an internship in the Japanese diet as a university student!

Q: How did you get started in politics?
A: Undergraduate I majored in government at Colby College and I had a Capitol Hill internship with Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont.  His chief of staff was mentioning this guy named Bill Clinton who was the governor of Arkansas and had great potential.  Clinton was unknown at the time, but I valued her opinion so I decided to volunteer for the Clinton campaign in 1992 which was a lot of fun.  I never worked full-time for politics though; it was always more of a passion.

I went to Thunderbird for my MBA from 1994-95, and at this time the Internet and Netscape were big.  I was recruited by FedEx in Memphis to help start their e-commerce business.  They were true pioneers in terms of real-time tracking on the Internet, something we take for granted today.  I was at FedEx for five years and met my wife there, though she is a doctor, not a FedExer. We both wanted to be closer to our families, which for me was D.C. and for her Atlanta, and it worked out when I was recruited by a dot-com in the D.C. area. Unfortunately, when the tech market went bust my company had layoffs.

Q: Did you return to politics at that time?
A: In 2004 I volunteered for the Kerry/Edwards campaign.  They sent a group of us from D.C. to Cleveland by bus during the last week of the election, as Ohio was the ground zero of the campaign.  There we staffed a phone bank, and it was then that I had my eureka moment!  It was four days before the election and people were getting really annoyed due to the volume of calls they were receiving.  In most cases, they would either hang up on us or curse at us, or threaten to vote for Bush if we didn’t stop calling.  I realized then that maybe we were doing more harm than good, and many of my fellow volunteers felt the same way.  I had the same experience when I was volunteering for the Virginia Senator Jim Webb in 2006.  People would say, “How’d you get my number?  I’m going to vote for George Allen!”  So once again I thought about whether all this was really helping democracy and if we weren’t hurting the cause instead.

Q: How did this realization turn into a solid plan?
A: With my business background I know about database marketing and was familiar with the Do Not Call registry.  I was by no means an expert in business or politics, but I knew enough about both and thought about how I could bring those two skill sets together.  In most cases, business people don’t get politics; they tend to want to leave things to the lobbyists and vice versa many politicians don’t know much about business.  I thought I could somehow span both groups.

In terms of restrictions on telemarketing, there are three exempt groups: politicians, NPOs/charities and market research.  For NPOs/charities, most people are not going to get mad at the Red Cross for calling.  For market research, they claim they need to understand how consumers think.  But for politicians, they are the ones who passed the law so they exempt themselves!  In order to remedy this problem the group I founded called Citizens for Civil Discourse (CCD), a non-partisan and non-profit group of ordinary citizens dedicated to raising the level of political discourse in the United States, is trying to implement a voter Privacy Bill of Rights.

In October 2007 we launched the National Political Do Not Contact Registry <> (NPDNC) at in order to allow citizens to opt out of political calls the same way they can with commercial ones.  We advocate fair practices such as identifying who paid for the call (usually given at the end when people have already hung up), providing an actual number identifying the call, and no calls past 9 p.m.  It is important to know that we are not looking to ban robocalls (automated telemarketing calls) as the First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech, but we would like voters to have a choice in the matter.  However, of course there is always a tension between this right and the right to privacy.

On the federal level, we helped craft the bicameral/bipartisan Robocall Privacy Act along with Senator Diane Feinstein of California.  In February I testified at the hearings regarding the impact of robocalls on voters’ lives, and we are still working with Senator Feinstein’s staff to get it passed.  Although we don’t anticipate that being any time this year, we are seeing progress.  I recently had an op-ed published in the Washington Post calling for a Voter Privacy Bill of Rights.  You can read it at:

Q: You are clearly well-versed in the American political scene, but do you have any commentary on the recent Japanese political shake-up?
A: To be honest, I don’t follow things over there as closely as I used to, though I heard about Prime Minister Fukuda resigning.  But I was absolutely fascinated by the political campaigning when I lived in Japan.  The vans that go around with the loudspeakers were so annoying!  As far as I know Japan doesn’t have the issue of robocalls, but in England they are dealing with it now.

Q: Bringing things full circle, what was the greatest influence JET had on your career?
A: JET was one of the best times of my life.  I lived in a small town where I was the only foreigner, so I was a traveling ALT and had to cover about 30 different schools.  However, I was based at the local board of education and it was there that I learned how to work within a bureaucracy, a skill that certainly helps me today!  In Japan things worked pretty much the same way they do in government here, in terms of knowing who you have to talk to in order to get something done or who has to sign off on things to put them into effect.

As an example, I wanted to make an English workbook that incorporated music, which I figured would be a successful teaching method since karaoke is so popular.  I was able to put this book together, but soon learned that I needed more than just a good idea.  I had to learn how to maneuver and convince the necessary people in order to make it work.  This is no different from my current job, only the players have changed.   Instead of Shimane civil servants, now I am on Capitol Hill talking with candidates and politicians.  By the way, in the end my book was distributed across the prefecture accompanied by audio cassettes (that’s how long ago it was!).

Q: Impressive!  Let’s hope your persistence pays off in similar ways this election cycle.
A: The NPDNC Registry currently has over 60,000 members nationwide and we are hoping to get 100,000 by the end of the election.  We are working to improve quality of life for Americans.

Thank you, Shaun!  Incidentally, he was a JET during the same period as Yankee-affiliated George Rose.

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