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EFF15: Freedom fighting created my careerelections, blogging, copyright, chilling effects, policy, legal
As part of the EFF's 15th anniversary, they are having a blog-a-thon where people describe the "very first step you to took to stand up for your digital rights." It's impossible for me to remember the very first step I took for digital rights... I suppose that's like asking someone to recall their first steps walking; it ain't going to happen.
Instead, I'm going to tell you how fighting for digital rights launched my career.
First, some background: I spent my undergraduate and early graduate career in Astrophysics. I was good at it, and was fascinated at how independent the universe was from the happenings on the surface of the Earth. However, after a while in the UC Berkeley Astrophysics program, the glamour wore off for me and I had to ask myself, "What is it you want to do with your life, in general?" Well, the astrophysicists around me would have answered, "To solve the mysteries of the universe." I wouldn't have said that. With apologies to my astro friends, I didn't feel that solving mysteries was a good use of my skills. In fact, I would have answered, simply, "To help people." And after seeing my current adviser, Pam, give a talk on the DMCA for a crowd of computer scientists, I decided I would do better pursuing science and technology policy at UC Berkeley's School of Information Management and Systems (SIMS, soon to be the School of Information).
At some point, I started reading blogs. Specifically those of Ed, Donna, Derek and Mary (I had been reading Dave Farber's IP List and Declan McCullagh's Politech List for quite a while already). I don't think I knew that they were blogs at first. Around Aug 2003, I decided I had enough to say to start my own blog... and the first version of it was rather low-fi, hard to maintain and mostly a photoblog: NQB v0.1. After a few months of that, I needed more from my blogging tool and set up NQB v1.0.
A this point I read a very interesting post ("Copyright and the University") of Derek's about a group of students at Swarthmore College who had been administratively and legally forbidden from distributing an archive of emails from Diebold Election Systems, Inc. Diebold was claiming copyright in the email archive and that the students were infringing their copyright. Which was totally absurd concerning the non-creative email archive for which there was no conceivable market which we were using for educational and political purposes. Many students like Derek were involved in a "whack-a-mole" protest where every copy of the email archive that was taken down by a cease-and-desist would be replaced by another mirror at a different institution.
After thinking hard about the consequences of my actions for a few hours, I decided to post the email archive ("Diebold cannot own the vote" and "C&D'd"). Within 48 hours, I received a cease and desist letter from Diebold's attorneys via a friend and colleague of mine, IT Policy Manager for Berkeley, Karen Eft. It appeared to be one of the last C&D's sent out by their attorneys to students as there were quite a few of us participating at this point. It was a tad embarrassing receiving a cease and desist letter from Karen, someone I had to work with on a regular basis also with whom I had attended the 2003 iLaw program at Stanford (although I still wish UC Berkeley had stood behind us and offered legal support). Not having solid legal representation (I was being advised by Matt Zimmerman then of the First Amendment Project and now an election law badass at EFF), I reluctantly took my archive down. Later that day, I talked to Declan in person for the first time ("Students buck DMCA threat").
The Legal Clinic at Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society and the EFF won that case on behalf of the Swarthmore students. To boot, they even were able to argue successfully that Diebold had implicated section 512(f) of the DMCA which forbids misuse of the DMCA's notice and takedown provisions. Nothing like the EFF making money defending digital rights, huh?
What incensed me more than the fact that Diebold misused intellectual property law was what I learned in the process about the machinery that is increasingly casting and counting our votes. There was an irrational desire for secrecy among the major vendors in computerized voting technology; irrational because of the long history of openness of our electoral process. I've been working in voting technology policy ever since, and my Phd thesis uses electronic voting as a case-study in ensuring that the checks and balances of democracy are maintained as core functions of our government are networked and computerized.