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The online public finds its voice

About the author
Becky Hogge is a freelance writer and broadcaster. She is the former executive director of the Open Rights Group, a London-based campaigning organisation that fights for civil and consumer rights in the digital age. She was previously the managing editor, and then technology director, of openDemocracy.net. She blogs here, and co-presents acclaimed London radio show Little Atoms. Her first book, Barefoot into Cyberspace, was published in summer 2011

Tonight, I am following in the footsteps of a Grateful Dead lyricist, Sun Microsystems' fifth employee and the inventor of the spreadsheet. Like John Perry Barlow, John Gilmore and Mitch Kapor, who together founded the United States-based organisation the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in 1990, I am starting my own campaigning group for online rights. Well, I can't take all the credit. Together with over 1,000 other people I have pledged that I will pay £5 (approximately $8) each month for the sake of a voice in an arena where our future online civil rights are at this very moment being put to paper.

It's an innovative way to start a campaigning organisation. Not until a critical mass of 1,000 people had been reached (with a last-minute call from cult blog BoingBoing for the final thirty-three signatories) could the Open Rights Group (Org) come into being. Using Pledgebank.com, a site designed by British civic participation hackers MySociety, the co-founder of British netzine Need to Know Danny O'Brien (himself an EFF émigré) started the process off. He pledged that if 1,000 people would join him, he would commit to funding a modest advocacy group that would give a voice to young technologists in the press and at the drafting table to the tune of £60 a year.

Also by Becky Hogge, managing editor of openDemocracy:

“Patents for profit: dystopian visions of the new economy” (March 2005)

“Democracy and dissent at the World Intellectual Property Organisation” (April 2005)

“The great firewall of China” (May 2005)

“Mozilla’s ‘magic pixie dust’” (with Hamza Khan-Cheema, September 2005)

“Open source nation” (interview with Geoff Mulgan, September 2005)

“Why the WSIS? Democracy and cyberspace” (November 2005)

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This bottom-up approach is testament to the organisation and the values it represents. But the thrill of being involved has not allowed the Org project to pass by without criticism – in fact, the openness of the group has exposed it to heartfelt involvement from many sides. But the project has already met with its first success. In speaking out against content owners' desire to be treated as equal to security services in terms of access to electronic personal data – a piece of draft law currently being fast tracked through the European Union – Org has finally added the crucial alternative voice in the modern dialogue of online rights.

Campaigning for digital rights is a very wide mandate. Not only is access to the internet increasingly, and rightly, being seen as a basic right, but the traditional concerns of civil rights are magnified in the virtual world. With more personal data swimming around in the ether than ever before, and with security services more enthusiastic than ever to get their hands on it, privacy is top of the agenda, and hopelessly skewed. Likewise freedom of speech. The recent sentencing of Chinese journalist Shi Tao on the strength of evidence provided by a third party global corporate entity should prove that the impossibility of global governance of the net also has its downsides.

Information and free sharing

But there is another side to digital rights campaigning that is unique to the information age. Not only must we protect the right to withhold our personal information and maintain our privacy, to transmit information and thus be free of censorship, we must also protect the rule of law which governs ownership of information.

Information behaves very differently to other resources. Unlike land, trees, water, or oil, it is not a finite resource – if I tell you something I don't forget it, we both know it – and therefore cannot be governed by laws of scarcity. Instead, a long-established system exists to harness the behaviour of information to bring the best net benefit to society. Copyright and patent law exist to grant creators of information – be they inventors or artists – a temporary, incentivising, monopoly over the use of their creation before it is assigned to the public domain, where it can be forever shared.

Intellectual property law is the name of this system, and up until the arrival of the information age it has played a bit part in the legal mechanisms that keep our democracies healthy. But in the last forty years it has been transformed: first prodded and poked, then extended in scope (the patenting of the mathematical algorithms that make up a piece of software, or the individual genes that make up a human being) and length (copyright terms, initially equal to the patent term of seven years, can now last a startling ninety years). The accumulative result is that the balance intellectual property law creates between monopoly and freedom has become almost unrecognisable.

The reason this crucial body of laws has been messed around with is to a certain extent the same reason that many laws which keep our democracies intact get messed around with – lobby groups with cash in the budget to buy influence get hold of people in power who draft proposals away from the eyes of the media or concerned citizens. But the absence of an advocacy group specifically to speak out in favour of the public domain has also been a problem – a problem that Org hopes to fix.

Lobbying for the public domain won't be all Org gets up to – indeed its first success has very little to do with it. But it will form a crucial part of online rights campaigning. Because protecting the public domain is basically protecting the internet. Not in the sense that without the public domain, there would be nothing to transmit across the internet (copyright exists on the net, no matter how much it is violated) but in the sense that the internet relies on the philosophy of the public domain in order to exist.

Also in openDemocracy on issues of intellectual property and digital rights:

Jason Toynbee, “Beyond romance and repression: social authorship in a capitalist age” (November 2002 )

Siva Vaidhyanathan, “Creative Commons: making copyright work for democracy” (June 2005 )

The internet is based around open standards – protocols that everybody knows (or at least has the right to know) and that everybody can use freely. Tim Berners-Lee often gets asked whether he regrets not capitalising on his invention, the Hyper Text Transfer Protocol, the lingua franca of the World Wide Web. He always replies that he doesn't, for the simple reason that if he had tried to exert a monopoly over http, the web simply wouldn't exist.

Doc Searls, widely seen as a prophet of the internet thanks to his co-authorship of The Cluetrain Manifesto and The World of Ends: what the internet is and how to stop mistaking it for something else, recently wrote: “We need to make clear that the Public Domain is the market's underlying geology”. The internet is a hymn to openness, and I'm pleased to be helping an organisation that will be singing that hymn in Westminster, Brussels and Geneva.


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