There's little doubt that emerging technology is improving our way of
life, but it's also creating a quagmire of legal issues surrounding the
rights and restrictions we face while living in a digital age. The once
ambiguous concept of "digital rights" has now become an all-encompassing term
used to designate a wide range of rights that have the potential to be
trampled on as courts sort out how Constitutional freedom applies to
emerging and existing technologies.
LWN recently chronicled
GeekPAC, an organization looking for new ways
to protect our rights via the political battlefront. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), one of
the oldest non-profit organizations dedicated to establishing and defending
our rights in a digital world, takes a different approach.
Since the EFF's mission encompasses such a large body of issues, it's no
longer practical to say they're protecting "digital rights." Rebecca
Jeschke, Media Relations Coordinator for the EFF, says, "Instead, in our
increasingly networked world, they are simply 'rights.' But we'll continue
to educate folks on the issues." To do so, the EFF focuses its
several important issues including
free speech, intellectual property, privacy, and innovation. At first
blush, it may be easy to dismiss the work they do as something that only
applies to people who download music illegally or who need to protect their
online content from thieves. In fact, it may surprise some people to know
that the EFF also defends the privacy of airline travelers and cell phone
users, issues not typically associated with the purveyors of digital
One of the reasons the EFF's reach is so wide is because of the way
technology infiltrates our everyday lives. It's easy to understand why
sharing the contents of a store-bought music CD with hundreds of people on
the Internet may infringe on the rights of the artist hoping to sell his
music. In the case of an airline traveler, rights infringement takes on a
completely new form when the Transportation Safety Administration's data
analysis and screening software wrongly decides someone is a security
risk. Not only is there no way to challenge the error, it's a mistake
that's likely to haunt them for the rest of their lives.
The more pervasive technology becomes, the more stories of this nature
arise. Take, for example, the seemingly innocuous library
book. Many public and school libraries are employing RFID technology to track books
and other borrowed items. People throw these books into their bag or
backpack without realizing the affixed tracking tags can actually be used
them as well. It's doubtful the government would be interested in
the whereabouts of a 9-year old walking home from school, but it's easy to
see how this technology can be mishandled or abused.
To be sure, no one is suggesting that technology be removed from our
daily lives. The mission of the EFF and its supporters is to effect
accountability and protect people's rights within the courts.
Jeschke says one of the biggest battles surrounding digital freedom that
we're likely to hear about in the next year or so is the issue of coders'
rights. In response to a gradual uptick of cases in which coders, software
engineers, and computer science students are being falsely accused of
hacking and other nefarious crimes, the EFF has developed the Coders' Rights Project.
According to the EFF, coders are becoming reluctant to explore and
research ways to make our technology safer for fear of being prosecuted
under laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and the
Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The Coders' Rights Project protects
researchers through "education, legal defense, amicus briefs and
involvement in the community with the goal of promoting innovation and
safeguarding the rights of curious tinkerers and hackers on the digital
Jeschke says another big issue to watch involves the National Security
Agency (NSA) and its interest in wiretapping phones and
email without first obtaining a court order. Though expressly illegal
since 1978, President George W. Bush authorized the NSA to proceed anyway
and when the news became public in 2005, the EFF immediately sprang into
action against the telecommunications companies assisting the government
with their illegal practice. Congress passed an amendment of the original
law that grants telecommunications companies immunity, and the EFF is
currently working to have
that law repealed.
Other issues of importance in the upcoming months are expected to be in
the area of copyright and fair
use in user-generated content. The proliferation of YouTube and other
online video hosting sites are creating a new and exciting level of
creativity, along with some cinema screen-sized headaches about how content
owned by others is permitted to be used..
For example, a homegrown animated video of original content is fine to
post online. Setting that video to a favorite Rolling Stones song, however,
crosses the line into copyright infringement. Or does it? What if the main
character is simply wearing a t-shirt bearing the band's hand-drawn logo?
These are some of the issues the EFF is hoping to sort out.
As a non-profit organization, the EFF is funded solely through
individual and corporate donations. In fact, a full two-thirds
of the foundation's operating budget comes from individual donations, much
of which is funneled directly into litigation.
The EFF's status as a charitable organization does not permit the
solicitation of politicians and governmental figures to support its
cause. Instead, the foundation fights legal battles in court, advises
policymakers, and uses it's corps of 50,000 volunteers to educate the
One such EFF contributor is SourceForge.net Community Manager Ross Turk,
who has been donating consistently to the EFF for 3 years and has been a
staunch supporter for much longer. He says:
I think the world is changing. Technology has made things possible now
that weren't possible before, but I think the system has become highly
motivated to preserve itself by making sure people don't do things in new
and interesting ways. The EFF's mission is, as I see it, to help the system
adapt to the world that we live in today by forcing it to take a closer
look at the way it deals with patents, the limitless power it grants
industry, and the way it views free speech in an online age.
I like that they protect the world's innovators, and I like that they
thwart those who try to use the technology we have created to monitor and
control us. I'm also very happy to know that they're
there to help us protect members of our community who are attacked for
doing what they like to do.
Turk also notes that EFF
Bootcamp, a one day training session presented by the foundation's
attorneys has benefited him professionally because it helped him
"understand the difference between enforcement and oppression."
It's precisely that kind of education that has kept the EFF going strong
for 18 years. The first step in protecting our rights in the burgeoning age
of technology is to understand how the things we invent and rely on have
the potential to impact our freedoms.
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