EFF, Premier Digital Civil Liberties Org, Turns 22

The Electronic Frontier Foundation office on Shotwell

The Electronic Frontier Foundation office on Shotwell

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Anxious to claim achievement at age 22, many find exaggeration the only route to take. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which celebrates its 22nd birthday tonight, has no need to exaggerate achievements — it needs to move, physically move. After 22 years at the forefront of the digital civil liberties movement, EFF is bursting through the concrete seams of its Shotwell warehouse.

So tonight it celebrates 22 years on the frontier of digital rights, and begins to say goodbye to the Mission District.

In a sense, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has been on the move since it set off into the untamed world of digital rights. “We want to make sure,” says Rebecca Jeschke, EFF media relations director, “the rights we had … stay with us as the technology moves.” Good luck with that, many would say, but EFF takes it seriously, slowly building a legal architecture where little had existed.

That work takes place in a digital world moving at warp speed, shifting the ground upon which our civil liberties are rooted. It’s a world, online and off, that has been placed in greater peril by a government obsessed with “terrorists” and business plans based on detailed personal information for growth and profitability.

Moreover, most people believe our civil liberties are already protected by law, regulation or (seriously) company privacy policies. Big mistake. These are precisely the protections that EFF fights for in court.

“Instead of trying to get laws passed or repealed, we try to get case law we like,” says John Buckman, EFF’s chairman. “Judges are much more reasonable people than politicians. They listen to arguments and they are supposed to make a decision based on what everyone heard, not on a backroom deal.”

The courtroom strategy got its start in 1990, when EFF brought suit against the U.S. Secret Service for seizing computer equipment from a small publisher in Texas. In a landmark ruling, the court made it clear that law enforcement must have a warrant particularly describing all electronic mail messages before seizing and reading them. Since then, EFF has been involved in hundreds of major cases touching on every important technology issue affecting Americans as consumers and citizens.

Don’t get the idea that EFF is another stuffy law firm, though. No chance of that. It fits in well with, and offers support for, the DIY civil liberties world — community groups and individuals who continue to develop applications and software for an open Internet with much greater privacy.

One of the more popular, and basic, of these activities is the jailbreak — hacking a phone or tablet to run software applications other than those approved by the manufacturing corporation.

In 2010, EFF won a ruling from the U.S. Copyright Office that removed as many as 1 million iPhone jailbreakers from legal jeopardy.

In addition to liberating your phone, EFF helps explore ways you can go online confident that your latest indiscretions won’t go viral. It has collaborated with Noisebridge, the hacker space on Mission Street, on a number of projects, including Noisebridge Tor, a part of the Tor network that, among other built-in security features, enables you to use the Internet without fear of being tracked as you move from site to site.

“The key function of EFF,” says Andy Issacson, evangelist for Noisebridge Tor, “is to be able to say there are actual lawyers who say what we’re doing is OK and who will back [their words] up in court.”

Issacson also commends the Foundation’s unique educational role, noting, “They put effort into making sure … we know what the law actually says.”

It also helps when we know what proposed legislation actually says before it becomes law. This is never easy to begin with, and it doesn’t help when the topic under discussion is technology. Over the years, EFF has used its expertise and experience to educate Congress and the general public on the dangers posed by legislation such as anti-piracy proposals with broad powers to censor legitimate speech. In January, its efforts contributed to the biggest online protest in history, pushing two censorious “anti-piracy” bills, SOPA and PIPA, into retreat, if not yet to their demise.

EFF has had considerable success in defining and defending digital rights, for which it is recognized around the world, experts say. Its success, and the intensified threats to civil liberties emanating from Washington and Silicon Valley, have caused the growth that means the 22-year-old needs a larger space. Although the Foundation had hoped to remain in the Mission, a better deal beckoned on Eddy Street, west of Van Ness.

We’re not happy about seeing our esteemed neighbor move out of the Mission, but we’ll still go to the party tonight: 8 p.m. at Mighty, 119 Utah Street. Requested donation is $22, but no one will be turned away for lack of funds.

Que le vaya muy bien!

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