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Fighting for digital rights



So, I love beginnings; I really like that moment of excitement when you start something off, and that's the reason why I'm slightly over-excited here at the very beginning of my talk. As the five minutes goes on, I'll get slowly more and more depressed. And I hope you'll join me in that journey. And one of the reasons I like beginnings is they demonstrate intent; you can create a little seed that becomes the final thing that you're creating, and that's why I love manifestoes; I love the GNU manifesto, it's an incredible document if you look back in 1984, predicting the sort of challenges that we'll be facing, and I love actually one of the founding documents of the Electronic Frontier Foundation; not right at the beginning but about four years in, one of our founders, John Perry Barlow, wrote a really stirring document from Switzerland, called The Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. How many people have ready John Perry Barlow. OK, so there is a few.

It's a document that maybe has not necessarily aged well over the time. I read an interview with John Perry for the tenth anniversary of it, so in 2004, and when they asked him about it he said, well, I'm kind of older and wiser now, but if you go back to it, as well as being a sort of embodiment of the utopianism and the hope of the mid-nineties, it remains a stirring and inspiring document; it speaks of the governments of the world as being weary giants of flesh and steel, struggling against the new and emerging civilisation of cyberspace and it goes on at length in that kind of tone.

Of course now, we're faced with new, all new weary giants of Google+ and Facebook like, and we have to work out a new way of becoming independent from these sort of feudal datalords in the same kind of cycle that begins and that's fine, right. You declare independence and then a new thread appears and you have to re-declare independence and the cycle begins again.

But I guess what I wanted to talk about a little bit is what do you do after you've written the Declaration, because manifestos are important; I would say in some ways they're necessary, but of course we know that they're not sufficient. We have to talk and then we have to act, and I wanted to go a little bit into the details of what we as an organisation do to make that kind of action, and some of the risks and opportunities that arise as you take a serious document of intent and you take on some of the biggest giants of the present day.

So I guess one of the things I can talk about is just a little bit about what the Electronic Frontier Foundation does, and we have been kicking around since 1990 but at heart, what we do is, well, often when people talk to me they go, oh yeah, you wrote a blogpost. I'm kinda like, yeah…we kind of do more than the blogpost, but thanks for that. And what we do as well as that kind of activism in informing people is we're also a law firm, and this comes as a surprise to people because they sort of see us like the paramilitary wing of Reddit or something and they imagine that we kind of come in and, OK, W3C, DRM is going down. And in fact what we do is mostly we act as a law firm; we sue people, we defend the innocent and we challenge laws, primarily in the United States context, and so when laws we feel violate civil liberties as they so often can do when they're mis-applied to the digital realm from SOPA to the DMCA, to other acronyms; CFAA and so forth, we challenge those in the courts and we have a posse of some of the best lawyers in the United States certainly, perhaps in the world, who are knowledgeable about this, they're half geeks, half lawyers, the D&D games are a nightmare. And we do that within the legal system.

But we're also technologists, so we also build tools to try and help implement and turn human rights into as someone earlier said, into laws of nature in the digital realm, so two of the things that we built are HTTPS Everywhere, which is the thing that takes…the faults of most websites are to serve you things unencrypted so that the NSA and anyone else who's interested can collect that data. HTTPS Everywhere turns that around so defaults to being encrypted. We also just released a tool for free, of course, an open source, called Privacy Badger, and Privacy Badger implements the thing that the ad supported companies did not want to implement, which is the Do Not Track cookie; it sits as a plug-in and basically if somebody looks to be tracking you, it turns off those cookies.

And we also fund other projects like for instance, we were one of the early funders of the TOR Project, so that's in a situation where anonymity is under threat online; we give and you can give support to tools that implement anonymity in that space, and really annoy the NSA as you may have noticed in recent reports, so that makes me feel like I'm doing the right thing.

So these are a combination of in some ways actually standard kind of like technical geeks' superpowers; you're a good lawyer or you can write code, or you're a good designer, and you can take something like that and you can achieve an effect in the world which is far larger than perhaps voting or making an individual act as part of a wider community; you use your talent and your talent is your power.

But what is it that we know about power, and what we know is that power corrupts. I was very excited about the Declaration of Independence and I loved the presentation, and the only moment when my heart kind of sank was, and I hope we'll have a discussion on it, I think this is what we're supposed to do, is the slide which was a picture of all of the team working on IndiePhone, and Alex [Aral] said, we have good intent and our hearts are in the right place, so let's go, and I went OK, I remember seeing bright-eyed geeks like this and it was late 1990s in Silicon Valley and they were all going off to work for Google. And one of my jobs at EFF is going to go round to these people and just go: stop, no, think what you're about to do. So I had the unenviable job, for instance, to go round to database conferences saying, don't store anything in your database; actually put that stuff, delete those logs, remove that data, stop collecting information about your customers, and people's faces would drop and they'd go, but that's what I do, and that of course is the original sin of geekdom. I think many people in these organisations, and I know because I talk to them, think that they're doing the right thing, and they don't see themselves as creating this panopticon of data that they have effectively created.

The original sin actually goes back much further than that. The original sin of geekdom that we're now having to live with is that we collectively, and I include all of us here, we're pack rats, OK. We like data. Data lets us learn how to build amazing tools; data learned is how we iterate. Data is how we make things better, and the more data that we have, the better that we can make the world.

The original sin of design is control. Steve Jobs had to impose control, so now when I go round and speak to people and say no, wait; think about what you're doing. On one hand I'm going to the people of Google and saying look, you know that you can't store this data without being a honeypot for the NSA and a temptation for your own corruption. And I have to go to people who love Apple and I go, this control system that you're building whereby you can control what information comes on this device and if you don't like nudity or if you don't like Palestinian information or the NSA comes to you and says, change this code, you have that control and that control remains with you, and you have to learn to let go of control. Fortunately, here at this very beginning, at this very start of this very seed, you already have the two buttons that will give you that power to remove that danger away from you, to save your souls as it were, and that's distribution and decentralisation. We have to build those things into the things that we design in the future, and I can give you two concrete examples without being too depressing, I hope.

So, the reason why I'm excited and delighted to talk about the TOR Project, even though the TOR Project is funded not only by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but by the United States Government and the Swedish Government and actually when I looked at the home page, apparently Google gave them some money in the past, too, is that TOR is designed so that the people in charge can't control it; it's distributed, it's decentralised. They've given away the keys to the people who operate it, and that's what you do, and that's what you design into the system. And if it works the way it does, it doesn't matter who is building or running the TOR network. And if it doesn't work the way it does, it doesn't matter who runs it as well; it's already broken. So the TOR network is decentralised and distributed in the same way.

In the political space, Richard Stallman I just show over there, just because I imagine he's over there and I sort of view him when I'm talking as sitting on my right shoulder, and part of Richard's genius (Eric Raymond on my left), part of Richard's genius was that, supposing Sergey Brin was to bid in the GNU auction that we had earlier and says, a billion dollars if you abandon all your principles and I get the GNU. If that happened, the code would still remain because Stallman built the GPL and the GPL takes the power away from Richard Stallman and gives it to everyone else, and the right to fork and the right to do this removes that centralising power.

So in conclusion, the thing I'm going to just sort of re-iterate, and this is not an EFF standard thing; this is just me sitting with an experience of trying to get digital rights to succeed over ten to fifteen years; it's the first step you have, and the first step you must take to save your soul is to make sure that the next Declaration of Independence that happens is not about you as a weary giant; you have to ensure that when the next Declaration of Independence, it's a Declaration of Independence for everybody individually and their own power.

Thank you very much.