Internet's patron saints of freedom back little guys

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 May, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 May, 2003, 12:00am

The original Internet pioneers envisioned the Web as a kind of eternal Woodstock festival where you could do more or less what you wanted.

But killjoys who would outlaw chocolate given the chance are trying to destroy your God-given right to get your online kicks for free. Consider the antics of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). It recently successfully sued four students at three universities across the United States for concocting Napsteresque software systems which help make music as openly available as air and bad poetry.

Enter an organisation devoted to the free flow of information without peril: the splendidly named Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

Based in that haven for slackers, drifters and counterculture freaks of all denominations, San Francisco, the foundation was launched in 1990 in response to a string of raids made by spooks tracking the distribution of a document illegally copied from a BellSouth computer that described how the emergency 911 system worked.

The foundation was the brainchild of Lotus founder Mitch Kapor and former Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry, who is responsible for a song which contains the immortal lines: 'Got a place in Malibu -/Like you've never seen./Pickin' out your lady friends /From Penthouse magazine'.

The tone of Perry's verse suggests that the foundation's mission statement would declare a need to make sex, drugs and rock'n'roll freely available to everyone from minors to swinging seniors.

The foundation's mission statement is actually couched in the kind of language Abraham Lincoln might have used. It states its aim as 'to help civilise the electronic frontier; to make it truly useful and beneficial not just to a technical elite, but to everyone; and to do this in a way which is in keeping with our society's highest traditions of the free and open flow of information and communication'.

Kapor and Perry should be made patron saints of the Internet instead of Isidore, the 7th-century compiler of the first encyclopaedia, or whichever obscure dead saint the Vatican recruits.

Not that the foundation relies on anything so spectacularly hard to lobby for as benign, divine intervention.

No, the foundation uses a weapon second only to the Tomahawk missile: litigation. It continually monitors the online community for legal actions that scream out for its support.

Among the spicier cases in its 'docket' is Nitke, et al versus Attorney-General John Ashcroft, et al. The plaintiffs are 'artist' (bondage photographer) Barbara Nitke, the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom and the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom Foundation, which are seeking to overturn Internet obscenity laws in relation to the Communications Decency Act, a statute supposedly littered with vague and archaic obscenity provisions.

The foundation is also tied up in MGM versus Grokster (the file-sharing system). 'At issue: Whether the entertainment industry, which previously tried to ban the VCR, is able to outlaw the technology that is the next killer app of the Internet. EFF Role: To act as co-counsel, raise money and publicise the case.'

Then there is a slew of cases relating to privacy intrusion. How much good the foundation does is open to debate.

But by scientifically combing the Internet in search of criticism using phrases such as 'EFF sucks', Technopedia could not get a single direct hit.

The foundation undeniably plays the media well. EFF statements crop up all the time in Google's continuously updated news engine, and it always manages to sound fierce and focused.

For instance, on the RIAA's lawsuit against the college student music-swapping Svengalis Fred von Lohmann, the senior staff attorney with the EFF said: 'Does anyone think that suing college students is going to solve the file-sharing dilemma, especially when Windows XP now includes the very same tools that these students are being sued for running? We should be talking about how to get artists compensated, not how to terrorise college students.'

Much more of this and it'll be back to student protests, free love and, who knows, maybe even a giant free music festival or two.

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