Electronic Frontier Foundation and Activism: Defining the Net as Grassroots
Danny O'Brien

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) was one of the first groups to take advantage of the online dissemination of political information and agitation. We were the first organisation to have a full-time online activist back in 1990, and improvised many techniques that are now accepted as the standards of digital activism today.

We're very fortunate, in a way, that our issues are the hot topics which benefit the most from being propagated and magnified on the Net. If you're at all somebody who uses technology and communication systems, you'll already have a natural bent to the beliefs EFF fights for (even if you don't necessarily agree with us). The importance of protecting the digital realm for free expression, freedom from surveillance, the right to innovate, and the limiting of the most damaging side-effects of our current intellectual property law.

While these aren't the most important issues for everyone who uses the Net, they're issues whose importance is often brought into focus and concentrated on the Net. Other groups work to organise their grassroots on the Net. For us, our grassroots is the Net.

Given that, what I'd like to discuss very briefly is what insights that gives us as to the nature of online activism and what problems we have moving that involvement onto the wider stage. This is kind of a meta-conversation: a discussion of what's involved in online activism, not what issues we should be most active about. I'm taking my ten minutes to talk about this meta-activism because I think that questions regarding the nature of the regulation of cyberspace are already our meat and potatoes at EFF. I'm happy to talk all day, absolutely unprompted, about the challenges that free speech and organising faces online, but it usually takes me a little more self-prompting to talk about the practical nitty-gritty of day-to-day activism and information propagation online.

I have two issues that I work with on a daily basis: one is the tenuous position of bloggers and online writers in China, and places like Fiji and Thailand. The other is the threat to free speech and innovation involved in Digital Rights Management (DRM). I can tell you which of those appears to get more coverage, more analysis, more outrage and more civil disobedience online. It's DRM.[1]

Why is that? Is it because the Net is solely the preserve of geeks? Clearly not. My experience is that not only is it not just geeks who get hit up about this topic, but also anyone who understands it sufficiently and has a day-to-day involvement with technology. But more importantly, it's geeks, and the geek communities who have access to the most powerful tools in propagating and organizing protest online, and possess the ability to innovate with those tools on an incredibly rapid basis. The geek community is, by the standards of many real world communities, incredibly politically apathetic. And yet, its voice is heard much louder than others through their adoption of such tools.

This is a question not of permanent advantage or bias of the Net but of temporary power of the cutting-edge. When, back in 1990, EFF first started to lobby Washington and spread information about what was then an incredibly obscure congressional process, it was the only group to do so. So even our obscurest issues were everywhere online. Now those tools: email mail outs, form letter engines, searchable archives of legislation belong to everyone. That means, in someways, that everyone has more power to take on their pet topics and spread the word. But it also means that everyone is doing so, which means any group quickly finds itself competing for the attention of individuals who are not as single-minded as they are, who care about a lot of topics. In that case, the technology race has to keep advancing, not just to penetrate the world of regulation and caucusing and lobbying, but also to help individual citizens prioritise and cultivate power and knowledge about every issue that concerns them, whether it's DRM or free speech in china, consumer rights or civil rights.

There is collateral damage here though. Who does it benefit to win the war for attention on the Net, if it doesn't translate into action in the real world? That's a struggle that we, in particular, have, given the natural reticence of us geeks to engage with Washington, and proselytise. But it's a problem we've seen elsewhere too: in Howard Dean's campaign most famously, but perhaps I can also point to Ron Paul's[2] tremendous success online in the face of two to three percent poll gains in real life. Sometimes the very competition between single-issue groups online blinds them to the fact that they're fighting the wrong fight. And while reach online is easy to calculate and metrics and data-mining easy to produce, having an effect in the halls of power is something that we have yet to consistently connect to the effect we have in the halls of the Net.

About EFF

From the internet to the iPod, technologies are transforming our society and empowering us as speakers, citizens, creators, and consumers. When our freedoms in the networked world come under attack, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is the first line of defense. EFF broke new ground when it was founded in 1990 - well before the internet was on most people's radar - and continues to confront cutting-edge issues defending free speech, privacy, innovation, and consumer rights today. From the beginning, EFF has championed the public interest in every critical battle affecting digital rights.

Blending the expertise of lawyers, policy analysts, activists, and technologists, EFF achieves significant victories on behalf of consumers and the general public. EFF fights for freedom primarily in the courts, bringing and defending lawsuits even when that means taking on the US government or large corporations. By mobilizing more than 50,000 concerned citizens through our Action Center, EFF beats back bad legislation. In addition to advising policymakers, EFF educates the press and public. Sometimes just defending technologies isn't enough, so EFF also supports the development of freedom-enhancing inventions.

[1] See http://www.eff.org/deeplinks/archives/005229.php/ for a more detailed discussion of what follows.
[2] Ronald Ernest Paul is a Member of the United States House of Representatives for the fourteenth district in Texas. He is a Republican candidate for the 2008 presidential election.