This week marks the Electronic Frontier Foundation's 15th anniversary — a decade and a half of changing bad laws, creating good court decisions, and building a technological civil liberties movement that now comprises dozens of organizations, activity all over the world, and millions of geeks with a burgeoning consciousness that the Internet isn't free because of its nature: it's been kept free by the struggles of activists and users who have fought back the forces of repression who would have tamed it and crimped it and rendered it little more than an AOL-1.0-style toy.
I've been working at EFF since 2002. These three and a half years have been humbling and inspiring. Watching EFF's supporters hammer Congress, the FCC, and corporations with millions of impassioned and imaginative emails, mob the streets in front of Adobe after they had a programmer locked up for embarrassing them by showing up their DRM, create hilarious and savage programs and pranks — it's been an education and a half and a half again.
We've won some stupendous victories. My first day on the job was attending the inaugural meeting of the Broadcast Flag negotiations. At the time, we had no idea how we would fight the Broadcast Flag — we could barely understand what it was — save that it would seek to put all digital television technology, including PCs, under the thumbs of the Hollywood studios. Two years later, "Broadcast Flag" is a household word (in geekier households), the Broadcast Flag is dead in the USA, and we'll strangle it in its crib in Europe. The best part of this fight was all the other groups we worked with — like Public Knowledge, who led the legal effort, the Free Software Foundation, the AMerican Library Association, and so forth. It's one thing to be a lone voice, another entirely to be part of an honest-to-God movement.
EFF has doubled in size and funding every 18 months since I joined, following a kind of activist Moore's Law. Attorneys General like Ashcroft and Gonzales and industry bullies like the RIAA and MPAA are in a perverse way the best friends a group like EFF could ask for. Insane acts like wiretapping libraries and busting children for downloading make the case for EFF more eloquently than I ever could.
The next twenty years will be the policy years. Technology has given us the capability to do practically anything we can imagine with networks — digitize every book, connect every person, break every cartel, enable every voice to be heard and safeguard the posterity of every moment of human creativity. The question now isn't "Can we?" it's "Will we?"
Or, more to the point, "Will they let us?"
This is a game of metaphors. EFF was founded to argue that the emails traded by Steve Jackson Games's customers were more like letters or phone-calls than like conversations in a park, and so the police should get a warrant before reading them. The coppers and EFF traded metaphors before a judge, and in the end, the judge liked our metaphor better — and that's why the Man needs a warrant before snooping on your email (or he did, anyway, until the Homeland Security Enhancement Act shredded the Constitution).
The Internet is too big to be contained by metaphors, though. In the end, the Internet isn't like postal mail, or a phone call, or a city, or a highway, or a company, or a civilization. The Internet is like the Internet — anything less is too constraining to contain its huge, astonishing potential.
If the Internet is to realize its potential, to be like the Internet and like nothing else, it will need defenders like EFF. I couldn't ask for a better cause.
EFF's 15th anniversary is being marked with a "Blog-a-Thon," with actual prizes. Check it out:
We want to hear about your "click moment" – the very first step you to took to stand up for your digital rights — whether it was blogging about an issue you care about, participating in a demonstration, writing your representatives, or getting involved with EFF. As a thank you, we've enlisted an independent panel of judges to choose from among your posts for "Most Inspirational," "Most Humorous," and "Best Overall." At the end of the Blog-a-thon, we'll announce the names of the three bloggers with the best posts on our website and in our weekly newsletter, EFFector. We'll also publish the three best posts on our site and send the authors a blogging "kit" as an extra thank you: an EFF bloggers' rights T-shirt, special EFF-branded blogger pajama pants, a pound of coffee, and a pair of fuzzy slippers.