EFF Wanders off the Reservation

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.

2246984141_0f4f1994caIn 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.

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4 Responses to EFF Wanders off the Reservation

  1. Rhayader says:

    Interesting, thanks for pointing this out Tim. This sort of reminds me of the ACLU supporting hate crime legislation.

  2. Tom says:

    Fair enough, I suppose, but it seems like wishful thinking to hope that the mission of protecting individuals’ online rights will only put the EFF in opposition to the government. And in this specific case, the cause seems to me like a good fit: if the case against allowing the surveillance of private citizens is strong enough to trump the wishes of those charged with maintaining our country’s security apparatus, surely that case is also strong enough to trump the wishes of those charged with selling us more stuff.

    The government certainly has the theoretical capacity to do more harm to an individual than does a corporation, but in a developed democracy I think the practical balance tends to shift: it’s vanishingly unlikely that I’m going to be, say, thrown into prison for political speech. But it seems conceivable, if still unlikely, that my life might be ruined by my credit card or health insurance company.

    At this point we can wander into a complicated effort to weigh my rights against the rights of the corporation’s constituents and the corporate entity itself; that can make for some interesting discussion, but I find the practical upshot more compelling.

    This is as much a tribal hunch as a difference of opinion, though. Still, I suspect that the folks running the EFF feel similarly.

  3. Tom, my beef isn’t so much with the substance of EFF’s position so much as whether EFF is the right institution to do this kind of work. The most basic reason they shouldn’t do this sort of work is that it’ll irritate libertarians and reduce the base of support for EFF’s work. Maybe you think that’s a price worth paying, but it’s at least debatable.

    The other thing is that fights against government encroachments on freedom have a conceptual clarity that isn’t present when you’re advocating new regulations. When you’re fighting against laws that restrict freedom, it’s always clear which side is the pro-freedom side. When you’re fighting for laws regulating the actions of private parties, you have to balance the freedoms being protected by the laws against the potential that the laws themselves will undermine freedom. Reasonable pro-freedom people are going to have different opinions about exactly how the balance should be struck, which makes me think it’s a poor fit for an advocacy organization.

    Relatedly, when you’re advocating new regulations, the details matter. If you’re going to lobby for privacy regulations, you want it to be done by an organization with the resources to carefully monitor the legislative process and carefully evaluate competive regulatory proposals. EFF isn’t such an organization. And there’s a real danger that EFF will throw its weight behind a good proposal, only to have it replaced by a watered-down or even counterproductive proposal before final passage.

  4. Tom says:

    Good points, Tim. I think it’s ultimately in the EFF’s interest to take an expansive view of its mission, but I’m very sympathetic to your concerns about implementation.

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