Friday, October 07, 2005

EFF the Police

I enjoy periodically taking stock of my life and beliefs, looking back and figuring out how I arrived at my current situation. Probably no single issue has had a bigger impact on my political philosophy than that of Internet censorship in particular and governmental policy towards computers more generally.

If you went up to any random group of 20 people and asked them why they voted the way they did, you'd probably get 20 answers. In the last election, some probably voted for Kerry because of his Iraq policy, others for his health-care proposal, still more for his intellect. Many people found more than one things that they liked about him, certainly, but most people have one particular thing that makes them passionate. Personally, I'm interested in economic policy, I'm interested in foreign policy, but neither issue gets me as excited as questions of free speech and other civil liberties.

It's hard to tell for sure why that is. Looking back, books have been a treasured and seemingly essential part of my life since an early age, and any time a book was denied me I acutely felt the loss. The idea of banning books seemed completely oppressive, the sort of villainy that people everywhere should decry. This view was reinforced through books like "Fahrenheit 451."

Along a separate track, I was getting excited about computers. Soon after my parents brought home a computer I was learning to program it in QBasic and had fun creating new worlds and bringing them to life; I also enjoyed playing professional computer games. I enjoyed reading books about computers and programmers, and at one point read a book called "The Hacker Crackdown : Law And Disorder On The Electronic Frontier." This contained a shocking story: as part of a nationwide sweep, the Secret Service raided the offices of Steve Jackson Games, a (pencil and paper) game company in Texas. Here they seized all the computers and notebooks, destroying two years' worth of work on several projects. They refused to return the computers, or copies of the data. It turned out that their goal was "GURPS Cyberpunk," a fictional gamebook loosely based on the works of William Gibson. The fools thought that this was an actual "hacking" manual on how to commit computer crimes!

This was in the early 90's, an era when computers were still in uncharted legal territory and the national government was just coming to understand their importance. It turned out that the Secret Service did not even have a signed warrant for their raid, but still the feds refused to hand the data back over. Steve Jackson Games was a tiny outfit, and even smaller once they needed to lay off employees. They would have been just one more victim if it wasn't for the help of an unexpected source: the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The EFF had been founded a few years earlier by several visionaries who were aware of the importance of the emerging electronic information space, and knew the importance of holding the line against inevitable government encroachment. They had already defended some young kids against the justice system, which was railroading them for finding weaknesses in computer systems. The SJG case, though, took things to a new level. The issue at stake was clear: did the 5th amendment (protection against search and seizure) apply to electronic data? Not only had the SS taken the physical hardware, they also had acquired all their electronic mail and files stored on remote servers as well, again without a signed warrant.

The EFF is fortunate enough to have been founded by wealthy eccentrics who could afford the best lawyers, and they were able to win the Steve Jackson Games case and so win a critical precedent. Reading the book, I was exhilarated by these legal heroes. Then I promptly forgot about them.

My next encounter with the EFF came several years later. I didn't get online until 1996. Looking back, I had some positions that seem pretty embarrassing in retrospect. I thought that the whole "Internet" thing was just a flash in the pan, and nowhere near as important as people were making it out to be. Still, there were a handful of worthwhile things on there, like Monty Python's web page and, oddly enough, Steve Jackson Games, which had one of the first-ever blogs that they called the "Daily Illuminator."

Anyways, 1996 also saw the passage of the Communications Decency Act, arguably one of the most misguided pieces of legislation of the last decade. (Well, prior to the whole Patriot Act nonsense at least.) Championed by Senator Joe Lieberman, this bill would outlaw "indecent content" on the Internet and make ISPs liable for providing access to it. That means that, if some kid in Russia puts smut (or whatever else might be "indecent") on the Internet, and AOL doesn't block it, AOL is guilty of blocking the law and can be shut down.

This was one of those terribly frustrating laws. Much like the video game censorship laws being proposed now, nobody could vote against the CDA without seeming like they were pro-pornography. At the same time, most people (at least those who understood how the Internet worked) understood that the law was unenforceable and unwise, not to mention unconstitutional. The only hope lay in the Supreme Court to strike it down.

The inevitable challenge came, led by the EFF and flanked by the ACLU, American Library Association, all national ISPs and other notables. However, the EFF didn't just lend its lawyers to the fight. They fought to raise consciousness of the freedom of speech issues and challenged the Internet community to fight against similar encroachments. They started the "blue ribbon campaign," the first and most successful online movement, in which a large percentage of independent website operations put a blue ribbon gif on their home page linking to an explanation of the CDA battle. Interested persons could donate to the EFF.

The EFF won, of course. The law was struck down with extreme prejudice by the Court (I believe 7-2, though I'll need to look that up), mainly on account of the unconstitutional vagueness of the term "indecent." Now precedents had been set protecting both the first and fourth amendments in cyberspace.

I really dug into all this stuff, seeking out references to the progress of the CDA battle in newspapers and checking out any books I could find on related topics. When I attended "Model Congress," a huge mock Congress created by representatives from hundreds of Minnesota schools, I wrote and argued a bill that would have established guidelines on the use of police powers in investigating computer crimes. (Basically, the crime would be "committed" wherever the computer was physically located, and the police in that area would have jurisdiction; the FBI could get involved if the attack came from another state.) Even though I'm a nervous and poor public speaker, I felt secure enough in my convictions to argue at length over the bills merits. (It ended up narrowly clearing the Humphrey House but failed to be introduced in the Stassen Senate.) I even dreamed of returning to Model Congress in future years as an EFF lobbyist. (Oooh, I should do a post on Model Congress; I haven't thought of that in years.) The move to Illinois permanently canceled those plans, but I remained enthusiastic about their work.

My first year in college I left the cheering section and joined the team. I've been a proud member of the EFF for almost six years now, tossing a few dollars their way and being glad to see that someone is out there fighting the good fight.

And they have been good fights. In recent years, as the Internet grows more pervasive, the threats grow ever larger of it being subverted. We no longer face idiotic laws; we now face laws that are more subtle, seeking to establish backdoors into your computer systems in the name of "national security," or allowing agencies to monitor all citizens' email under a blanket warrant. They have led the fight for privacy rights, forcing companies and governments to declare what information they collect about you, share how they use the information, and purge it once it's no longer needed. Identity theft would be far less of an issue today if more companies honored the laws championed by the EFF. And the EFF also works to protect individuals against harassment by large corporations online, such as the draconian dragnets of file-sharers or constant harassment of bloggers who reveal true but unpleasant information. The EFF has pushed for secure electronic voting, a subject that makes every computer programmer I know squirm. Their single most important fights in recent years have been to hold the line against corporations seeking to write into law wholesale theft of consumer rights.

As you can tell, I'm a fan. So I was delighted several weeks ago to read that the EFF would be hosting its 15th anniversary party in - drum roll please - San Francisco! On a day when I had nothing else going on, this seemed like a perfect excursion. I sent in my RSVP and eagerly awaited the day.

I headed into SF early; I'll never get tired of visiting the city. This was my first experience riding BART and I was extremely impressed. The cars look a little old, but were reliable, spacious and fast. I buzzed from Millbrae up to Powell station on Market Street and deboarded.

I happen to be a technology junkie, and I've had an itch for some time now: the Metreon. This is a mall/entertainment-complex created by Sony in the heart of SF. I'd been putting it off until one of my tech-happy friends comes to visit, but I could no longer resist so in I went.

Man. I could have spent all kinds of time in there. They have stores for everything Sony on the ground floor, including setups with amazing HDTVs and audio systems, and a Playstation store with dozens of playable PS2s and PSPs. They sell Sony music and Sony movies, even Sony robot dogs. They also had a bookstore and several upscale restaurants. Heading upstairs you can find even more nerdy delights, including the largest comic shop I've seen (including every action figure you can imagine), another shop with tons of manga and anime, and an arcade. The entire third floor is taken up by a Loews Cineplex, the largest theater in San Francisco (including an IMAX!).

I was actually a little disappointed by the arcade. I was probably spoiled by Nickel City, which I'd been to earlier and may get a mini-writeup at some point. I was expecting it to be expensive but had hoped for there to be more, well, arcade games there. They just had one functioning DDR machine and two driving games (six machines) and NO Crazy Taxi (MAJOR boo). Some shooting games, Virtua Fighter, a mediocre classic games room with a handful of machines. Their signature game is Virtual Bowling, which may have been cool if I'd played it in the restaurant on the ten-foot screen, but was underwhelming on my machine. I left the arcade with over half the money still on my card and headed outside.

Here things were looking up. The Metreon is adjacent to the Yerba Buena Gardens, a cultural center, which was hosting a free concert that day. I'd been a little bummed that, due to the presence of enthusiastic little kids, I hadn't been able to get on the DDR machine; but out here people were dancing for real. It was a great band, sort of Afro-Caribbean (no steel drums but lots of rhythm), four singers who got the crowd into it. I found a warm spot and plopped myself down, enjoying the perfect weather and people-watching. I'm consistently impressed by how SF seems to resist cliques; I saw teens, young professionals, families and aging hippies all relaxing or moving to the music. The best thing is, as far as I know the concert wasn't promoted in advance, I certainly hadn't seen anything about it in the paper before. And yet they were able to fill an entire plaza just from people who had wandered by and wanted to spend part of their Sunday listening to some good music.

The concert ended a bit after five and I made my way back to the subway station. I overshot Powell and walked all the way down to the Civic Center station. I also learned that there is a large number of nude clubs once you get this far south on Market; who knew? I boarded BART and took a very short ride two stations south to 16th.

This was definitely a part of the city that tourists don't see much of. It didn't feel dangerous, exactly, but everything just seemed kind of loose... chunks missing from the sidewalk, people loitering everywhere, stores that spill outside, lots of talk and the smell of cooking food. I did my standard city-walking thing, briskly following the instructions in the email and avoiding all eye contact. This seemed like a very odd neighborhood to put a legal foundation. Then again, why not? Geeks tend to be oblivious of their surroundings anyways, so they may as well find something low-rent and save money for their court battles.

I found their building, which had a garage door facing the street. Going inside I saw that the festivities were already under way. Once again I experienced the pleasant feeling I get so often here in Silicon Valley, one of being physically surrounded by my peers, proud nerds who wear their obsessions and their politics on their sleeves. Literally. One great thing about geek congregations is the plethora of clever t-shirts you see, including such gems as "There's no place like" and "hash bang slash bin slash bash." I went past the tables where they were signing up new members and wandered around. The whole building was open, and it was fascinating to look at the place where they did their work. It's basically a huge brick building with some super-cheap walls thrown up to form offices. Almost every available flat surface was covered in printed literature, either from past EFF campaigns ("Lady Liberty Needs Your Help!"), current political movements (while EFF is officially non-partisan, the evidence suggests its staff holds a strong affection for Democratic Party positions), and random amusing clippings from newspapers. I was pleasantly surprised to find an office for Annalee Newitz, a local tech/culture columnist who I knew had good ideas but had not known possessed an official affiliation with the EFF. Cool.

They had free beer and soda, and a long line for free tacos. I got in line and struck up a conversation with a local consultant who, like me, moved to the Bay Area; unlike me, he arrived in the boom years and seems to be doing well for himself. Even though he's been out of coding for a few years, we easily conversed on all sorts of topics like the history of the EFF, current corporate trends, and our experiences in mobile software. That's yet another thing to love about this place; odds are so high that someone you meet will actually know what you're talking about when you want to share your theories on the future of Ajax applications or other interesting topics.

The food was quite good; the email had advertised "tacos", but there was a huge variety of American-Mexican food on display. Very tasty and filling. While eating we got to hear a really good string band. Their music sounded amazingly similar to the music in "The Waking Life," one of my all-time favorite movies. People just kept on coming, and we were rapidly approaching critical mass.

I hung out close to the one largish open space in the building; we were supposed to be treated to some remarks from the original EFF founders, and this seemed like the most promising place for them to be. My one complaint about the night was how disorganized it was once we got there; no signage, no schedule, no real indication of what was going on where. Fortunately, we turned out to be in the right place, and after 7:30 the talks began.

First up was the EFF coordinator, a very good-natured woman who thanked everyone for coming and made a standard pitch for more money. She introduced Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Networks and one of the three biggies in EFF history.

Honestly, I was feeling pretty relaxed by then and the three mini-speeches (Kapor, John Gilmore and John Barlow) sort of blended together for me. Together they covered the original founding of the EFF, starting when an FBI agent showed up on Barlow's Wyoming ranch. They observed that in the early days, they had an advantage they have since lost: they were on the side that actually understood technology, fighting against people who didn't have a clue but wanted to control it. Now, the others still want to control it but have gotten much better at what they do. They were each incredibly proud of the work the EFF has done, and like true visionaries are already planning and worrying about the obstacles further down the road. I think it was Gilmore who mentioned how the work the EFF is doing now on copyrights will be incredibly important decades from now once nanotechnology becomes a part of everyday life. How will creators be compensated for their work once it can be replicated a million times over at virtually no cost? The problem facing musicians and software creators today will be facing all creators of physical objects within our lifetimes, and we need to come up with new models that work. That's the context they see their RIAA battles in, not just fighting against corporate harassment but trailblazing new content delivery systems and new compensation models.

Powerful stuff all. The last address was finished shortly after 8, giving me time to grab some tasty birthday cake and then book it back to the BART station. On the way home I enjoyed listening to my Sigur Ros album on my PSP. Technology provides my paychecks, technology provides my entertainment, technology connects me with new friends and old friends, technology creates a culture I enjoy moving and socializing in. So it's not surprising that any time something threatens that love of mine, seeking to corrupt the progress of technology or turn it towards evil ends, I feel extremely distressed. As long as the EFF is faithful to its mission of preserving and advancing our rights in the digital sphere, I'll look on them kindly as a shield protecting all of us and continue to support them.

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