Freedo(tco)m Fighters: The Electronic Frontier Foundation Is the Internet’s Vigilante Justice League

by memeiotics

Can't Hear You Over All This Freedom

I’m discovering that it’s really hard to talk about freedom without wrapping yourself in sententious cliches or mocking the people who do. And in the era of “free speech zones,” I can’t help but roll my eyes at anyone who uses the term “free speech” non-ironically. Free speech, especially free speech in the digital age, requires serious interrogation: what does it mean for the Internet to be “open”? Open to whom? For what purposes? Who gets access to what and why? Who regulates that access? Who regulates the regulators? Who is “press”? Who is “public”? What protections ought the government provide—and what protections do we have against the government?

Most governments have struggled to answer these questions. Today, for example, the UK debated press regulation—the Leveson Inquiry is a direct result of “Hackgate,” a scandal in which a bunch of UK tabloids were accused of phone hacking and police bribery. Nasty stuff, of course, and absolutely deserving of government inquiry. Yet some bloggers fear that the inquiry is being used to justify ramped-up government surveillance and control of the Internet. One proposed report begins by trying to define “press” and “publisher” and “news-related material,” but that turns out to be a rather sticky wicket. The vagueness of the law ends up labeling any Twitter user posting celebrity gossip part of the press, and thus subject to regulation. BoingBoing’s Cory Doctorow summarizes:

In a nutshell, then: if you press a button labelled “publish” or “submit” or “tweet” while in the UK, these rules as written will treat you as a newspaper proprietor, and make you vulnerable to an arbitration procedure where the complainer pays nothing, but you have to pay to defend yourself, and that will potentially have the power to fine you, force you to censor your posts, and force you to print “corrections” and “apologies” in a manner that the regulator will get to specify.

What happens when everyone’s a news producer, and news regulation affects everyone? The answer, some imagine, is a terrifying Orwellian future of surveillance and thought control. Double-plus ungood.

But of course, thoughtcrime is not yet crime, and many people are very serious about keeping the Internet free and open. (I am having to fight the urge so hard to put scare quotes around “free” every time I use it in this post. Like, seriously.) The best-known—and perhaps the most-effective—free Internet organization is the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a group of attorneys, web developers, writers, and activists whose tagline is “Defending Your Rights in the Digital World.”  They’re the vigilante justice cowboys and -girls of the digital plains, defending the public against government and corporate regulation.

EFF was founded by a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, in response to a similar kind of hacking-panic government crackdown. In 1990, Steve Jackson Games (the folks behind the ridiculous dungeon-plundering card game Munchkin) was suspected of being behind the distribution of an electronic document describing how the 911 system worked. The Secret Service raided Steve Jackson Games, seized all the computers in the facility, read and deleted all their email and bulletin board postings, determined that the document didn’t have anything to do with Steve Jackson after all, and returned the computers. In the meantime, Jackson missed a deadline and had to lay off half his employees. A few of Jackson’s friends at the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link were outraged and decided to defend him in court. The court case was pivotal in the history of Internet privacy: it ultimately established that email communications ought to have the same legal protections as phone communications.

EFF has remained engaged in conversations about Internet freedom and continues to defend people whose rights are infringed upon. They support people such as Creative Commons founder Aaron Swartz, who, as you’ve likely heard, recently committed suicide perhaps in part as a result of a “hacking” trial (he downloaded and distributed a couple of million supposedly public record legal documents from JSTOR). In a recent case, EFF successfully argued that so-called National Security Letters (government letters sent to “telecommunications companies demanding information about their customers”) are unconstitutional.

And in the UK, free-internet activists today achieved a (questionable, slight, uncertain) victory: eight hours ago, the proposed laws defining any Twitter user as “press” were rejected, in favor of a new press-governing body. David Cameron was quoted saying:

I believe it would be wrong to run even the slightest risk of infringing free speech or a free press in this way.

Some worry that the new governing body will be just as problematic. But no doubt, the EFF will be working to keep it in check.

Freedom isn’t free. ‘Murrica.