net.wars: Fifteen years on the electronic frontier

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 29 July 2005

I don't know where I was when a lot of seminal incidents happened – the release onto the Net of Paris Hilton's video, for example, jogs no memories for me – but...

Wendy M Grossman

I do know when I first heard of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. It was December 1990, and I was writing up an interview for Personal Computer World about JJ Buck Bloombecker, who had recently published a book called Spectacular Computer Crimes. Somewhere along the line, someone mentioned this relatively new organisation…

Fifteen years is a long time for any organisation to remain effective, and EFF has had its ups and downs. Yet, it has helped defend people whose digital activities were under attack from old laws; challenged bad laws in court to prevent their enforcement; worked to ensure that new laws were good laws instead of bad ones; and given awards to highlight important, pioneering work. To celebrate, the EFF is having a week-long blogathon, starting today; posts are supposed to be about anything that represents a personal first step in connecting to the "fight for freedom". And you add a tag, and there are judges, and, well, you get the picture.

Blog-a-thon tag

I haven't really got an appropriate story to tell, however: it's hard to think of myself as an activist when I'm paid to take a professional interest in the issues of the digital day. Although it is true that the EFF was probably my first contact with the net.wars range of issues. When everyone was vilifying hackers, EFF was pointing out the difference between computer criminals, electronic joyriders, and the unjustly accused. When the US government was trying to keep cryptography under import restrictions as a military weapon, EFF was pointing out its importance in securing sensitive data. Digital rights management, anonymity, Internet governance, bloggers' rights…

Put simply, EFF lobbies for the extension of civil liberties into cyberspace. That description has its limitations – it doesn't convey how much EFF staff time is spent in very long, dull meetings listening to people debate pin specifications for HDMI plugs or scrutinising every word of a new bill. "Avoiding bad law that sticks" was one of the first things anyone from EFF said to me about what they were trying to do. The legal emphasis is, I think, what distinguishes EFF from the other digital era organisations that have sprung up alongside it: Center for Democracy and Technology, Public Knowledge, and so on. Of course, all these folks overlap on some issues, copyright in particular, and some of the same people keep popping up in different jobs.

At last week's Opentech , a panel asked the question, "Where's the British EFF? You could start by saying that the EFF's mission is dispersed among a number of organisations: Privacy International , European Digital Rights, http://www.fipr.org Foundation for Information Policy Research , No Software Patents, No2ID, and so on. FIPR did a lot to improve the worst and most invasive clauses in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, and Privacy International has spearheaded careful analyses of the ID cards bills. No2ID collected 10,000 people in a single month who were willing to sign a pledge not to join the National Identity Register and contribute £10 to a legal defence fund; it's now trying to sign up 50,000 to create a £1 million fighting fund.

You could go on, as speakers did, to point out that the British legal system does not leave openings for the kinds of legal challenges the EFF is able to mount in the US. With no written Constitution, you can't mount a court challenge to new British laws the way the EFF and others did to the Communications Decency Act clause of the 1996 Telecommunications Act in the US. However, European laws, especially the European Convention on Human Rights, have begun to offer some scope for that.

But speaking as someone who has helped found a cause organisation, it's very, very difficult to get any kind of national campaign going in the UK. Funding is scarce. People with real energy to devote to it are always scarce. Put your organisation in London, and you have the largest local crowd to draw on – but also higher costs and more competition for people's attention. Put it outside of London, and the only people who will get involved are those who live nearby. Longer term, too many organisations rely on just one or two highly passionate individuals, and fade rapidly when those move on, burn out, or emigrate. A really successful effort must include building a sustainable organisation for the future, which means that the founders must be searching all the time for their successors, as well as sources of funding that won't dry up when a particular project ends.

Opentech found some support for founding an EFF UK, and if you want to join in all you have to do is sign the pledge to put up £5 a month to give it seed funding.

But, folks, if it doesn't happen: consider giving that same £5 to an existing group that has a track record and some continuity, or donate it to help the folks behind TheyWorkForYou and related sites, whose work is making MPs' records much more visible – and therefore the MPs themselves more accountable across the board.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).