The nature of the Internet is changing. Formerly a quiet backwater where techies gathered to gossip and exchange interesting goodies, it is now widely publicized in the mass media. Vice President Gore and others are keen to make the Internet the foundation for an "Information Superhighway" bringing billions of bits into homes and offices across the country.
Although this is very gratifying to those of us in the in(ternet) crowd, many of us have concerns about the exact shape the new system will take. Issues of control, privacy, and even topology dim the rosy glow of Al Gore's expansive vision. Fortunately, a worthy organization has emerged to track, consider, and inform us about these issues.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) was founded in July of 1990 to ensure that the principles embodied in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are protected as new communications technologies emerge. As such, it is the preeminent organization concerning itself with the key socio-political issues of the current and emerging communications infrastructure.
The EFF tracks a very wide variety of issues: Will the Internet remain a network, or turn into a hierarchical distribution medium? Will the content of messages be subject to control? Will privacy in communication be outlawed or otherwise subverted?
EFF also tracks a number of related issues. What attempts are being made to restrict online civil liberties? What government documents are available over the Internet? What restrictions, if any, are being placed on their use?
The foundation has been quite effective in its mission. It played a key role in the Steve Jackson Games case, which established privacy protections for electronic mail and publications that are kept online. It has also played a large part in shaping the discussions of the proposed Information Superhighway.
The stakes are very high. Quite literally, we are deciding whether the citizens of the world will be free to communicate with each other in an uncensored (and private, if desired) fashion. Open communications channels are reshaping the world's governments, allowing citizens to exchange information and reject disinformation.
Control and topology are one obvious battleground. In our current world, it is a commonplace that "freedom of the press belongs to those that own them". Is this really how we want things to be?
My magazine columns are controlled by the magazines' editorial staffs, under the overall direction of the publishers. My occasional ramblings on the Internet, in contrast, are almost entirely free of outside control. If the "new, improved" Internet loses this freedom, we will all have lost a major part of our ability to interact freely.
Privacy is another area of conflict. The advent of digital communications allows every electronic communication we make to be transcribed, analyzed, and salted away by assorted agencies. At the same time, the advent of strong cryptographic technology (e.g., Public Key Cryptography) allows the possibility of complete privacy, along with absolute verifiability of digital signatures. It looks like a choice between absolute freedom and absolute control. Which do you prefer?
New media, like any chaotic system, are highly sensitive to initial conditions. Today's heuristical answers of the moment become tomorrow's permanent institutions of both law and expectation.
As the above quote (John Perry Barlow, "Crime & Puzzlement") indicates, the decisions and precedents being set today will affect our online futures indefinitely.
The foundation is working with legislators to make sure that principles guaranteeing free speech, privacy and affordable service to consumers are written into new communications legislation. Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) has already incorporated much of EFF's Open Platform vision into his NII proposal (H.R. 3636). Al Gore's rhetoric also includes a fair sampling of EFF's key positions.
On the other hand, EFF's attempts to ensure our right to cryptographic security have fallen on deaf ears in the current (let alone the previous!) administration. Attempts are still being made to restrict cryptographic security, promote pseudo-secure technology such as the Clipper Chip, etc. Consequently, there is still a lot for EFF to do.
EFF maintains a substantial FTP archive on ftp://ftp.eff.org/. The README file in the top-level directory is a good place to start. The introductory file about.eff gives a terse overview of EFF's goals, charter, etc. A featured publication, "Big Dummy's Guide to the Internet", is available in a number of formats (ASCII, WWW/html, TeX DVI, Texi, PostScript, Windows .HLP, AmigaGuide, GeoWorks Write, MS Word 5.x, Mac HyperCard, DOS self-displaying hypertext, Gnu info, and more).
The Computer underground Digest (CuD) archive, can be found in ftp://ftp.eff.org/pub/Publications/CuD. "EFFector Online", EFF's biweekly electronic newsletter, is available by email, FTP, and (yuch) US mail. For general information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. For membership information, contact email@example.com.