Unquestionably, a big bump in EFF’s stock came in 2003, when the RIAA started handing down its lawsuits against hundreds of people who used peer-to-peer technology. Suddenly, protection from the legal dragnet was needed. And while the EFF couldn’t prevent P2P users from having to settle out of court with the RIAA, it was a valuable information resource; it also offered legal services to people wrongly accused, brought the Grokster case all the way to the Supreme Court, wrote white paper after white paper about the issue’s ramifications, and even devised its own collective licensing scheme, “A Better Way Forward,” that offers a realistic alternative to copyright laws that are clearly obsolete in the digital age.
Worcester’s Nick Reveille, co-founder of P2P advocacy group Downhill Battle and the open-source software collaborative the Participatory Culture Foundation, has worked with EFF for years. They advised Downhill Battle of their legal rights when they defied EMI and made DJ Dangermouse’s Jay Z/Beatles mash-up, The Grey Album, available to millions online for 24 hours on “Grey Tuesday,” two Februaries ago. And Downhill Battle and EFF worked together on a campaign to protest the Induce Act, a broad and flawed bill which would potentially overturn the Betamax decision and stifle technological innovation and fair-use laws. (They co-sponsored a “Save Betamax” call-in day, swamping congressional offices with calls about what most politicians figured was an obscure issue.) Downhill Battle and EFF are two very different groups who work in different ways toward the same goals.
“There’s a generation growing up that’s totally comfortable with everything in digital form,” says Reveille. “Copying, sharing, remixing, reconfiguring. But your rights to do that are under constant attack. Media corporations want to force you to go through their channels all the time. But the EFF are the line of defense for the public against corporations that are constantly overreaching on copyright and trying to expand their influence over what the public can do.”
The next ACLU?
If the Electronic Frontier Foundation won’t actually become the American Civil Liberties Union of the 21st Century, it will certainly continue to be a crucial defender of our rights, especially in areas the ACLU may not be as well equipped to handle.
While the EFF and the ACLU work together often, says Steele, “one of the key things that’s different about us from the ACLU is that we actually have technologists on staff. What tends to happen for a lot of these tech issues is we’re usually about 18 months or maybe even two years ahead of the ACLU, except for the ones where maybe we inform them and let them know, or ones that are very obviously traditional, like anonymity online.
“But something like encryption, which is something we were very involved in, it took us a while to get the ACLU involved because they didn’t understand why it was important and what it meant. Once they understood, they got involved and used their resources, and they were quite wonderful.”
Some have called the EFF the “911 of the Internet.” You call them when some new and unforeseen technological emergency arises — they’re the ones who will rush to the rescue. That’s a real value. But it’s also a problem. “Unfortunately for us, part of what we have to do is be able to react to whatever is going on,” says Steele. “If there’s a new threat that shows up from a particular place, that’s where we have to focus resources.” Representatives from the ACLU did not return calls at press time.