Archive for November, 2007

COBRA Q&A Series 3: Retroactive Premium Rate Changes

Posted on November 19, 2007. Filed under: COBRA & Health Insurance |

Today’s question for my COBRA Q&A Series involves “back billing” or making a retroactive change to a QB’s premium rates.  As always with this series, my goal with these posts is to create something of a “knowledge base” over time with these posts, but please always keep in mind when reading these that I am not an attorney, and I am not providing legal advice.  If you have a legal question concerning COBRA, HIPAA, USERRAFMLA, or any other ERISA matter, you should consult an attorney who specializes in these areas of law.  Finally, if you’d like a basic overview of COBRA with some links on where to find more official information, please see my earlier post here, and if you’d like to see other posts in this series visit the COBRA Q&A Series index page here.


I think I remember an earlier conversation where you said that when you were running your COBRA TPA you always provided 30-day advance notice to COBRA QBs when their premiums were going to change, and that this is why you provide both an “effective date” and a “billing date” for new rate periods in COBRApoint.  Will you please explain this to me again?  I understand why back billing is questionable, but I have a few agents who disagree, and I’d like to understand this better.


This is a very real world question.  COBRA administrators across the country routinely complain that their employer clients are often extremely late in notifying their COBRA administrators of new plan rates for new plan years.  Since this question has two components — “what can COBRApoint accommodate” and “what would you do in this situation and why,” I’ll try to break my answer up into two parts (Ed Note — I decided not to include the COBRApoint specific part of this answer in this post, but if you’d like the full answer just send me an email.  Naturally COBRApoint can accommodate both proactive and retroactive rate changes even though we believe strongly in proactive changes ourselves).  I’ll tell you what we would do from our experience, but since this question gets into determination periods vs. plan years vs. policy years and other fun items, I’d recommend that you talk to counsel before determining your own firm policy.

What would we do when we were running our COBRA TPA in this scenario?

When we were running our COBRA TPA, we believed that the EBSA (within the DOL) advised us clearly that we needed to provide 30-day advance written notice to QBs of any changes to their premiums when these premiums resulted from a change in a plan’s rates (as opposed to a change because the QB asked to drop a plan, change coverage levels, drop a dependent from a plan, etc.).  We also believed that the COBRA regs were clear in stating that plan rates must be “fixed in advance” of each annual determination period (the annual 12-month period during which COBRA premium rates must be fixed and cannot be changed).  Since our employer clients typically set their determination periods to be the same as their plan years, we clearly advised our clients that (a) they needed to get us their new rates for a new plan year / determination period at least 30 days in advance of the new plan year, or (b) if they failed to do so they would need to subsidize any difference in rates for the period of time between the start of the new plan year and the date on which we would apply the new rates to any existing QBs (which would be at least 30 days after we were notified of the new rates to allow us to properly notify the QBs).

The “agents” you mention could be relying upon the part of the COBRA regs which clearly states that you may increase a QB’s premium during a determination period if the QB is not currently paying the maximum rate plus the 2% administration fee.  In other words, the employer set the new rates in advance of the determination period, and just because they didn’t tell you (their COBRA administrator) about the new plan rates until after the start of the new plan year / determination period, the QBs should still be required to pay these new rates.  We never disputed this point.  We did change rates when we received them, but on the advice of EBSA we didn’t apply the new rates until the first of the month after 30 days from the date we notified the QB of the change in rates.  We never applied a retroactive rate increase to a QB.

Again, this is an issue you may want to take to the EBSA/DOL yourself or consult counsel.  One solution we have seen work in some cases is to off-set the determination period and the plan year.  In other words, if a client has a plan year which starts January 1 each year, but they routinely fail to get you the new rates until December 30, have their determination period start February 1.  The downside to this is that since rates typically go up each year, the client will by default be subsidizing the difference between the old rates and the new rates for all QBs during the off-set period.  You also run the risk of an employer discontinuing a plan at the end of a plan year.  The better solution is to have the employer run their open enrollment period a little earlier to ensure they have time to get you new rates at least 30 days before the start of the new plan year.

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COBRA Q&A Series 2: Incorrect Election Notice

Posted on November 15, 2007. Filed under: COBRA & Health Insurance |

In this next installment of my COBRA Q&A Series we’ll look at a question involving an incorrect COBRA Election Notice (also known as a COBRA Specific Rights Notice).  As always with this series, my goal with these posts is to create something of a “knowledge base” over time with these posts, but please always keep in mind when reading these that I am not an attorney, and I am not providing legal advice.  If you have a legal question concerning COBRA, HIPAA, USERRAFMLA, or any other ERISA matter, you should consult an attorney who specializes in these areas of law.  Finally, if you’d like a basic overview of COBRA with some links on where to find more official information, please see my earlier post here, and if you’d like to see other posts in this series visit the COBRA Q&A Series index page here.


We have a question about how best to update a QB’s plans in COBRApoint properly.  The QB in question is [John Doe] for our client [ABC Company].  When [ABC Company] notified us of [John Doe’s] Qualifying Event, they told us he was on [Medical Plan A].  We sent him his COBRA Election Notice, and he responded by electing [Medical Plan A], and he included payment for his first month of coverage.  We have since learned from [ABC Company] that he was never on [Medical Plan A] as an employee.  He was on [Medical Plan B].  If we simply drop [Medical Plan A] from his record as of his First Day of COBRA and add [Medical Plan B] as of his First Day of COBRA, will COBRApoint accurately reapply the premium he has paid (note that the premiums for [Medical Plan A] and [Medical Plan B] are different)?  Alternatively, if you were in this position, would you start over and send [John Doe] a new Election Notice?  How would this action affect us given the regs’ requirement that we send the Election Notice in a timely manner after receiving notice from the employer [plan administrator] of the Qualifying Event.


Yes, and yes.  Yes, if you drop the QB’s incorrect plan as of his First Day of COBRA and add the correct plan as of the First Day of COBRA, COBRApoint will “unallocate” the QB’s payment(s) to date from the incorrect plan premium(s) and reallocate the payment(s) to the new plan’s premium(s).  If you have already remitted premium payments to the client, COBRApoint will apply remittance adjustments if necessary to your next remittance period’s remittance report.  This is standard anytime you drop and add plans from a QB record. 

More importantly, in this scenario, yes, we also believe from our experience that the best course of action is to send the QB a brand new Election Noticesince the original notice was incorrect — the QB was not entitled to elect an incorrect plan and needs to be properly informed about the plan(s) he is eligible to elect.  In fact, any time you drop or add a plan as of the First Day of COBRA when you have already generated an Election Notice (Specific Rights Letter), COBRApoint will automatically regenerate a new Election Notice and restart the QB’s Election Period.

In addition, we’d encourage you to consider the following actions as well:

1.  Call the QB.  Let him know what is going on and make sure he understands the situation.
2.  Consider “terminating” the current QB record to generate a “notice of unavailability” (Termination Notice) to formally inform the QB that the COBRA rights offered under the original Election Notice are not actually available to him.  Then create a whole new QB record to generate the new Election Notice.  You should consult your legal counsel on this point.  If you choose to simply generate the new Election Notice in the original QB record, COBRApoint will maintain the history of both the original Election Notice and the new Election Notice.
3.  When we were faced with this type of scenario in the past, we also called the employer (client) to encourage the employer to subsidize any difference between the premium of the incorrect plan and the premium of the correct plan if the correct plan’s premium was higher — at least for the month or months for which the QB has already paid.  We never encountered any difficulties with this request when the employer clearly knew they had made a mistake.
4.  Attempt to ensure that the insurance carrier(s) clearly understand what is going on.  COBRApoint will automatically generate communications detailing the specific changes to the appropriate carrier, but it can’t hurt, and may save headaches and confusion later, if you make sure the carrier(s) clearly understand now.

Finally, you asked about whether this raises issues concerning your timely delivery of the Election Notice to the QB after you’ve been informed by your client of the Qualifying Event.  The 2004 DOL “final COBRA regulations” indicate that the employer has 30 days to notify you of the Qualifying Event (from the date of the event), and you have 14 days to generate and mail the Election Notice (from the date the employer notifies you).  As long as you generate and mail an Election Notice within 14 days each time the employer notifies you, we believe you are in compliance.  So, in this case, if you’re still within 44 days of the Qualifying Event (even when you learn of the correct plan), we believe that both you and your client are still in compliance when you generate the second Election Notice.  However, if greater than 44 days have passed, we think you continue to be in compliance as long as you generate each of the two Election Notices within 14 days of your notification from the employer.  The employer, however, may be out of compliance if greater than 44 days have passed.  I think it is likely that any court would find that as long as (a) the employer first notified you of the Qualifying Event within 30 days, (b) you generated an Election Notice each time within 14 days, and (c) the employer notified you immediately when they discovered the error, that both you and the employer acted in good faith throughout this process.  However, this is an issue I would strongly encourage you and your client to consult legal counsel about.  I would also again recommend the strategies of calling the QB to explain the situation and encouraging your client to subsidize any difference in plan premiums for the months for which the QB has already paid.  This will be much less painful for your client than the potential alternative (legal fees, IRS and statutory penalties, a court requiring the employer to self-insure the QB for the maximum COBRA period, etc.).

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COBRA Q&A Series 1: QBs & New Employer Plans

Posted on November 13, 2007. Filed under: COBRA & Health Insurance |

This is the first in an ongoing series of posts which I’ll add to over time as we receive interesting COBRA compliance administration questions from our customers and industry friends.  We’re unique in the US healthcare benefits administration industry in that before we built a technology and services company to serve this industry we first built and ran one of the nation’s largest third-party COBRA administrators for over 2500 employer clients.  In other words, we’ve walked a mile or so in our customers’ shoes, and our systems and services are “built by administrators for administrators.”  As a result, we regularly receive questions about how we would handle a given scenario.

In each post I’ll share the question we received and our answer.  I hope to create something of a “knowledge base” over time with these posts and may create a dedicated page to index them.  Please always keep in mind when reading these that I am not an attorney, and I am not providing legal advice.  If you have a legal question concerning COBRA, HIPAA, USERRAFMLA, or any other ERISA matter, you should consult an attorney who specializes in these areas of law.  Finally, if you’d like a basic overview of COBRA with some links on where to find more official information, please see my earlier post here.


If an employer is offering a new voluntary benefit plan to its employees (i.e. offering a voluntary vision plan for 2008 when the employer has not previously offered a vision plan), does the employer have to extend this new voluntary benefit plan to COBRA participants, too? This new benefit is not linked to or part of the medical plan in any way. It is simply a new benefit to employees. Since the COBRA participants did not have vision coverage on the day before their qualifying events, we don’t think we should have to offer vision to the COBRA participants, but we’re having trouble confirming this in the regs.


You are correct that the COBRA regs provide a COBRA Qualified Beneficiary (“QB”) the opportunity to elect to continue coverage under the plan(s) they held on the day before their COBRA Qualifying Event.  In other words, if an employer offered both major medical and dental plans for 2007, and an employee was only enrolled in the major medical plan, when the employee becomes a COBRA QB he/she would not have the option to enroll in dental at that time.  A QB can only initially elect to continue those plans he/she held prior to the qualifying event.

However, the COBRA regs also state that a QB must be treated the same as a “similarly situated active employee.”  The regs also state that they apply to any group health benefit sponsored by the employer (so whether or not the plan is voluntary doesn’t change whether or not COBRA applies).  During annual open enrollment, if your active employees are given the option to enroll in new/different plans, then, if we were administering COBRA for you, we would offer this same option to your COBRA QBs.  We would ask you to send the same open enrollment information to your COBRA QBs which you provide to your active employees and allow them to select from the same benefit plan options.  So, in this specific case, yes, we would offer the COBRA QBs the right to enroll in this new vision plan for 2008 if they so choose.

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Posted on November 12, 2007. Filed under: Other |

I enjoyed the Eagles win over the Redskins yesterday.  I wasn’t jumping up and down with excitement like I was a few years ago when the team was on the path to the Super Bowl, but I was on the edge of my seat through the fourth quarter, and I did do a little dance in my seat when they took the lead with 3 minutes to go.

I am emotionally invested in this team — I’m a fan — and the core of the NFC East (Eagles, Redskins, Giants, & Cowboys) have been great rivals for a long time.  The result is that I can take satisfaction from a win over a rival even in a year when the season doesn’t look too promising.  Each win is celebrated and offers promise for the future.

In many ways this is similar to starting a company.  I can’t imagine being more emotionally invested in a “job” than I am in this company we’re building.  The “seasons” are shorter — measured in months or weeks or less — and the opponents/challenges are certainly different, but the emotional roller coaster can be very similar.  You can have bad weeks, bad days, bad hours, but you also have lots of little, and some big, wins.  You also have the promise of the future — the dream.  It is this vision of the future and the little wins along the way that keep you moving through the bad seasons.

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COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985)

Posted on November 9, 2007. Filed under: COBRA & Health Insurance |

Why am I writing a post about this law? 

COBRApoint (our suite of enterprise SaaS portal applications) empowers employers and third-party administrators (including insurance carriers, administrative service organizations, human resources outsourcers, professional employer organizations, etc.) to administer COBRA compliance and other forms of health insurance continuation such as for retirees.  Combined, COBRA continuants and retirees in the US pay over $50 billion annually in health insurance premiums to their former employers to remain on the employer’s health insurance plans.  Because our customers know that we built and ran one of the nation’s largest third-party administrators of COBRA compliance for over 2500 employers before building COBRApoint, it is not unusual for customers to contact us to get our opinion on how they might handle interesting situations which arise.  I plan on starting an ongoing series of posts about some of these compliance administration questions, though please remember that I am not an attorney and I am not offering legal advice.  So that I don’t have to explain COBRA each time, I’m creating this post as a reference point for any readers who aren’t familiar with the law.

I will attempt to provide a brief summary of COBRA below, but for more official information, you may want to check out the US Department of Labor COBRA Fact Sheet, COBRA FAQ, or download their PDF entitled, “An Employee’s Guide to Health Benefits Under COBRA.”  Employers and administrators may want to purchase a copy of the EBIA’s COBRA: The Developing Law manual which may be the best and most complete source of information available.

COBRA Overview

The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 was passed on April 7, 1986.  Responsibility for enforcing the law is shared between the Department of Labor and the Internal Revenue Service.  The regulations are periodically updated by the IRS and DOL, and much of the minutia for how to legally administer compliance is contained in continually evolving case law.

The essence of COBRA is that it requires employers with 20 or more employees who provide a group health plan to enable certain former employees and their dependents to remain on the employer’s group health plan for a limited period of time when they would have otherwise had their coverage terminated.  To be eligible for COBRA, an employee or dependent must have experienced a “qualifying event” (i.e. termination, reduction in hours, death of the employee, divorce from the employee, etc.) AND experienced a “loss of coverage” as a direct result of the qualifying event.  A person who experiences a qualifying event is known as a “qualified beneficiary.”

The length of COBRA continuation varies based on the type of qualifying event.  “Employee events” like termination and reduction in hours make a qualified beneficiary and his/her dependents eligible for an 18-month continuation period.  “Dependent events” like death or divorce make a qualified beneficiary and his/her dependents eligible for a 36-month continuation period.  As with almost any law, there are of course exceptions, and in this case things like a “qualified disability,” a “second qualifying event,” or a leave to perform military service under USERRA may extend the length of continuation.

In most cases, qualified beneficiaries are required to reimburse the employer for the entire cost of their monthly health insurance premiums at group rates plus a two-percent administration fee.  Premiums are usually due monthly, and a qualified beneficiary must make timely premium payments to continue receiving coverage.  Recent statistics indicate that about 11 million Americans experience “qualifying events” each year, and almost 5 million Americans pay for and receive COBRA continuation benefits each year.

Administering COBRA compliance can be frustrating for many employers.  Some sources claim that the IRS and/or DOL have estimated that as high as 90% of employers are out of compliance.  Note that even if an employer outsources their compliance administration to a third-party, the employer (or “plan administrator”) is still where the buck stops for compliance responsibility.  Administering COBRA compliance is not only challenging given the many complexities and gray areas in the regs and case law, but it is also burdensome on the employer requiring timely communication with the qualified beneficiary (lots of mail), tracking dates closely, processing individual premium payments, communicating with insurance carriers, generation and reconciliation of reports and carrier bills, etc.  While the regs state that a COBRA qualified beneficiary must be treated equally to active employees, the work required to accommodate the COBRA participants is much greater.

Finally, since I haven’t even really scratched the surface of COBRA in this post, I’ll pile on and also add that 43 states so far have enacted laws which either extend the scope or duration of COBRA in certain circumstances or which place a COBRA-like obligation on employers with 2-19 employees.  These state laws which extend COBRA are often referred to as “state continuation” laws, and the state laws which apply to employers with 2-19 employees are often referred to as “mini-COBRA” laws.

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Options, Leverage, and Focus in the Startup

Posted on November 8, 2007. Filed under: Company Financing |

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The Road Not Taken” Robert Frost

Whenever you’re faced with multiple paths forward, choose the most difficult one. It is almost always the right one.
Thomas Cannon (my first boss)

I’ve worked for some great leaders in my career, and I’ve tried to learn from each of them. They each seem to have a few gems which they hold as core beliefs which govern their decision making and how they run their businesses. Working with John for the past two years has been no different. This is his third company after leading each of his first two to positive acquisitions. It is fun for me to watch which things he’s refining in this third company, and which core tenets still apply. One of these tenets is that John likes to ensure that we have options at key inflection points. If you don’t have options, you don’t have the opportunity to make decisions — to lead. So, we’ve worked very hard through these first two years to look into the future and work to ensure that we have multiple options at each critical juncture in the growth of the business.

About 90 days ago, John and I sat down and agreed that we were approaching another milestone point in the growth of the business, and that we needed to work hard to give ourselves options for this next step. In our case this next step will be the launch of the 2.0 release of our COBRApoint SaaS application and the simultaneous launch of our BPO services. We started with the goal of securing three simple options —

(1) “stay the course” meaning continue on our current path and grow organically;
(2) secure a strategic relationship with a large industry partner who will potentially make a stratetgic investment in our company and who will actively drive our system and services into their existing customer base in return for equity and/or revenue share;
(3) secure a capital partner to fund a significant ramp in our marketing and sales and customer support efforts to stimulate more rapid growth in return for equity share.

When we first defined this high-level goal, we didn’t consider these to be mutually exclusive options. In other words, options 2 and 3 were intended to simply be accelerated market penetration strategies with the potential trade-offs of reduced revenue or equity in return for more rapid growth.  Given the right opportunities, we may have even chosen to pursue both options 2 and 3 simultaneously.

The result though has produced several very interesting and attractive options which, for the most part, are mutually exclusive.  We still have the “stay the course” option, but we have two potential options from a capital partner (one significantly more aggressive than the other), and we have found two potential strategic industry partners.  The interesting twist is that three of these options — the agressive option with the captial partner and each strategic industry partner option — will require some unique and significant development work and the bulk if not all of our attention for at least the next year or more.  They also require slightly to radically different approaches to capturing the market.  The great news is that each of these three has the potential to be a real “home run,” but given our size and maturity, we must realistically now pick only one option and then focus on execution.  We simply don’t have the bandwidth at this stage in our growth to try to do more than one of these options at a time, and to try to do so would at best result in two half realized opportunities and at worst…

So here is what we’ve learned. 

(1) Having options is good.

(2) Having options is even better, because having options provides you significant leverage in negotiating the best possible deal for the option you choose.

(3) For most startup companies, when faced with several mutually exclusive options, you must pick one and only one and focus your attention and resources on executing the chosen path.

Stay tuned for the path we choose, as I’m sure it will color the future of this blog just as it will the future of the company.  By the way, having to make these kinds of decisions is what makes startups so much fun!

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Imprecise Precision and Company Valuation

Posted on November 6, 2007. Filed under: Company Financing, Other |

My Eagles aren’t so good this year, and I’m the kind of sports fan who ties my emotions pretty tightly to the fate of my team (at least until the last whistle blows and I go back to being my kids’ dad).  I don’t get loud or violent when my team stinks, but I do get negative, and when I’m feeling a little less than sunny, I can spot flaws and find faults in just about anything.  So, while the Eagles were putting the nation to sleep last night against the Cowboys, I had plenty of opportunity to give some thought to something which I realized has made me uneasy me for some time now.

Why do NFL referees make such a big show out of bringing the chains on the field to precisely measure whether a team has made a first down when they’re using the highly imprecise spot of the ball to make this determination?  Is this a P.T. Barnum sucker kind of show?  You have a head linesman on the sideline sometimes as far away as the entire width of the field (or more if he’s behind the play) who comes running in from the sidelines at the end of a play to dictate where the ball was down and place the ball for the next play.  There is no way he gets the spot exactly right.  In general, I’m OK with this.  Human error is part of the game.  What bothers me is them bringing the chains on the field to check to see whether the highly imprecise spot of the ball resulted in the nose of the ball precisely breaking the plane of the first down marker.  Whether or not my team gets the first down may have a precise impact on the outcome of the game, and yet this is often based on a highly imprecise spot of the ball.  Short term imprecision may play a part in producing a highly precise result in the long run.

I’m finding that pre-money valuations from potential capital investors are starting to engender the same kind of emotions in me in that a very imprecise pre-money valuation may ultimately result in a very precise result to my family in the long run.  Ask the VC provides a good and simple explanation of how VC’s determine pre-money valuations here.  As above, in general, I’m fine with the way this process works.  For relatively early stage investments, pre-money valuation is simply an entry into a formula that spits out share price to determine equity ownership percentages relative to the amount of the investment.  In many cases the entrepreneur and the investor can even start at the desired result and work backwards together to produce the pre-money valuation.  Clearly this isn’t a precise science.  What is a company worth when it has some product, little or no revenue, and a defined but not yet proven market?  If a knowledgeable entrepreneur has one capital investor with whom they really want to work, and the entrepreneur and the investor can both amicably agree to a deal which results in an investment amount and an equity share which they both believe is reasonable, then as far as I’m concerned this was a good deal for both parties — a classic win-win.

The difficultly starts to set in though when the entrepreneur has multiple possible sources for funding and all of them have different opinions about how the company should approach the goal of dominating the market.  Different approaches may produce different opinions about a company’s pre-money valuation, require different investment amounts, and result in different ultimate equity shares.  Take for example a company who may be talking to a “classic” venture capital firm, a “classic” private equity firm, and a public company interested in making a strategic investment.  All three by their very nature have different investment philosophies and different goals for their investments.  They may also have very different opinions about the value of the entrepreneur’s “product” in its relation to the market which will produce different company valuations.  Again, taken independently, each deal may be “fair” as a stand alone deal, and I suspect that just about every company has faced a “fork in the road” at one time or another and had to choose their direction.  Will option A which gives me less equity result in a more valuable company meaning my smaller equity percentage is actually worth more?  I’m learning quickly that this is the kind of stuff which separates the winners from everyone else.  In my next post I’ll discuss our current personal fork in the road and the options facing us.

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Evhead, the Valley, and the Awesome Power of Communication

Posted on November 2, 2007. Filed under: Other |

Evan Williams (Nebraska native and co-founder of two Silicon Valley companies that produced Blogger and now Twitter) has written a great post sharing his experiences and thoughts on the pros/cons of the Valley versus anywhere else from the perspective of both an individual wanting to get into the game and an entrepreneur building a new tech startup.  Ev’s advice is fantastic, and I agree with him on all points. 

I spent close to a year of my life all told in my twenties living out of hotels in Sunnyvale working with Tandem Computers (the two Motel 6s across the street from each other on Lawrence Expressway — I was high-end in those days), and the relationships I built and the spirit of the area play a big part in who I am today.  Today though I’m a husband and father working with my partners to build a growth enterprise to revolutionize part of the US health insurance industry and capture a $50B annual payment processing market.  We’re using state-of-the-art Internet based technology to do this, but we need insurance and payment processing experience and contacts as much as we need technical skill, so Omaha is a great place to be.

What is really cool about all of this though to me is that Ev, whom I’ve never met, wrote his post in response to a question I posed on his blog, Marc Andreessen’s post here, and my post here.  The fact that Ev played such an instrumental role in revolutionizing the way the world communicates by founding Blogger and now Twitter just makes it even more fun.

I think perhaps that many Americans don’t appreciate how incredibly precious and powerful access and communication are.  Censorship in China is a hot topic on the blogsphere these days, but I’d like to tell a more personal story.

Lori and I had the great fortune to spend our honeymoon 5 years ago traveling through Eastern Germany with great friends.  A long time friend and colleague, Horst Franz from Wiesbaden, arranged a trip for us from Berlin through Dresden and the Wartburg and down to Munich for Oktoberfest.  While Oktoberfest was great, the most amazing part of this trip were the days we spent in Berlin and Dresden with Horst’s wife’s younger brothers and their university friends.  All of these people in their early 20’s had grown up behind the wall.  They all spoke brilliant English, and we spent great days bicycling along the Elbe, drinking and talking, exploring Berlin and Dresden, drinking and talking, climbing through hilltop castles, drinking and talking… 

The drinking aside, what they wanted to do more than anything, was TALK.  They wanted to know everythingabout the US, and Lori and I were equally interested in learning what their life was like growing up behind the Iron Curtain.  Perhaps our most interesting discovery though was this — about 8 of the students in Dresden lived together in an apartment in an old cement block building which should probably have been condemned.  Their bedrooms had simple mattresses on the floor, and their kitchen and one bathroom were worse than my fraternity house.  However, when you first walked in the front door, you had to duck to avoid the brand new Cisco router mounted to the wall, and brightly colored Cat 5 cables snaked down the long hallway and into each room.  In each bedroom, next to the mattress on the floor, was a fully loaded, high-end PC or MAC.  When I asked them about this apparent incongruity, they each explained that their computer was the most important possession they owned.  When asked why, they each said “access and communication.”  To them, the fall of the wall and restoration of their freedom meant that they finally had access to truth and the free ability to communicate with others — not just talking to friends, but communicating with the world.  It is easy for us today in the US to debate the pros/cons of blogging, twittering, tumblogging, etc., but the greatest thing is simply that we can.  And, we owe great thanks to people like Ev Williams who keep creating new and better ways for us to communicate.

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    Mark Waterstraat

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