Frontier justice

As the Internet and other shifting technologies dominate our lives, is the EFF the new ACLU?
By MIKE MILIARD  |  February 9, 2006

WILD, WILD WEST EFF is the new sheriff in townLog on. Check your Gmail. Click the URLs your friend just sent. One’s a blog entry about electronic voting machines, the other is a news story about warrantless wiretapping. Grit your teeth. Go to Google. Type in “DNC.” Use your credit card to fork over a few bucks to the first site that pops up. Toggle over to Maybe there are new pics from that model, the one with the dragon tattoo and the pierced everything. There aren’t. But there is a new Gorillaz/White Stripes mash-up on Get it. A new Kanye remix at Digital Eargasm. Download that too. (MP3s are all you use for music these days, ever since that Bad Plus CD left that fucking rootkit stuff on your hard drive last fall — Suspicious Activity, indeed.) Scan the headlines on The Onion. Print out an article to read on the subway. You don’t notice the faint grid of tiny yellow dots on the edge of the page.

You may or may not recognize the risks in these quick and ostensibly innocuous visits with your laptop. Or the tenuous legality of some of the commonplace activities performed therein. But the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) does. And as more and more of our lives are spent online, its crusade to safeguard our freedoms in the digital age is all the more important. From file-sharing and fair use to electronic surveillance and online anonymity, the EFF (based in San Francisco, after stints in Cambridge and DC) has been at the forefront of battles that shape our online experience. It’s been around since before the Internet was in common use, and as we enter the age of “Internet 2.0,” with the Web’s power and reach only growing, EFF’s importance will do the same.

“We have a critical mass of people who are using pretty sophisticated technology as a part of their everyday life, and in fact relying on it,” says Cindy Cohn, the EFF’s legal director. “And that’s starting to raise all sorts of interesting questions.”

“So much of what we do is now electronic,” says EFF executive director and president Shari Steele. “Unless there are groups like ours out there, being watchdogs for what’s happening in the world of technology, we’re going to lose our rights before most people even realize that anything has happened.”

Taking on the heavyweights
For an organization with just 22 members — primarily lawyers, tech specialists, policy analysts, and activists — and a budget of just more than $2.5 million, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has its fingers in a lot of pies. Just scroll down the list of topics on the right side of its homepage. Biometrics. Bloggers’ rights. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). E-voting. Patents. Privacy. Spam. Surveillance. The EFF is a gimlet-eyed observer of technological developments, speaking out when technology both is used to infringe on our rights (the Justice Department’s recent subpoena of Google’s search records) and itself is infringed on (the RIAA’s war against file-sharing.) And it doesn’t just bark, it bites.

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