I consider the Electronic Frontier Foundation to be the most important defender of freedom online. They led the fight against warrantless wiretapping, and they’re far and away the most important organization defending fair use in an age of ever-expanding copyright protection. One of the things that I’ve especially admired about the organization is that they’ve carefully maintained their focus on the defense of civil liberties. For example, they remained neutral during the network neutrality fight, neither endorsing regulations nor opposing them. This ensured that both wings of the EFF donor base—the progressives and the libertarians—felt comfortable donating. Had they taken a position on network neutrality, they would have divided their donor base and thereby reduced their effectiveness at their core mission of defending civil liberties online.
In 2006, I chided them for jumping on the anti-AOL bandwagon when AOL introduced its “GoodMail” plan giving priority access to its customers’ inboxes to those who paid for the privilege. Whatever the merits of the GoodMail plan (personally I wouldn’t have wanted it on my email account), AOL was a private company in a competitive market, and AOL’s email policies just weren’t a civil liberties issue. As a EFF contributor, I was concerned that money I had expected would go to defend civil liberties was instead being diverted to other causes.
Over at the Technology Liberation Front, Adam Thierer points to an even more egregious departure by EFF from its civil liberties mission. EFF has apparently signed on to a coalition seeking new regulations of data collection for use in targeted advertising. Now, this isn’t an issue I’ve given a ton of thought to, so I don’t have a strong opinion on the subject. Berin Szoka has been doing some good work on the subject, and I’m inclined to agree with his conclusion that regulating behavioral advertising is certainly premature and probably counterproductive.
But the more important point, in my view, is that this is the first time I can remember that EFF has called for more government regulation of wholly private transactions. Even if regulating behavioral advertising were good public policy, it strikes me as inappropriate for EFF to be lobbying for it. They’re a civil liberties organization; people expect their donations to go toward fighting government restrictions on peoples’ freedom. If EFF abandons their traditional message discipline and begins indiscriminately backing causes its staff happens to support, it’s going to make many potential EFF donors, including this one, think twice about donating. I hope this campaign proves to be a one-time occurrence and not the start of a broader trend.