Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Our Rights Online: Danny O'Brien

Danny O'Brien currently serves as the EFF's international outreach coordinator. He also founded the excellent newsletter NTK, which is understandably on a hiatus of sorts. Here's much of what he said. If you have any amendments or corrections, let me know.

I'm running on incredible constraints this morning. David told me to be funny and to talk about international human rights. If you've seen the Amnesty Internation Big Book of Jokes, you know that's not easy. Another thing David likes is salacious personal histories. Here's mine: How I First Got on the Internet.

I was a humanities student in the UK in 1989. The Internet hadn't really reached the UK at that point. It belonged to the technological priesthood. We have one of them in our computer room. I was just a humanities student typing up my essays, but there was some disgruntlement that this priest held the keys to the Internet. He used these PCs just as they were terminals. Someone wrote a keylogger that recorded his brief incantations to see what he did. And a few people got to see the Internet. There wasn't a whole lot there. Tim Berners-Lee was just starting to write the Web. It was basically a telnet proxy.

It was like seeing the stars in the sky for the very first time. You saw how simple it was. You saw how much power you coud wield because of those simple terminals. If you could just pull at that wire that connected that small set of terminals, reconnect, and connect again, you could build a bigger and faster network. We wanted it very badly.

My job at the EFF is that I'm the international outreach coordinator. Bonjour! There's a lack of understanding of how the Internet spread to and transformed other countries. Many of the values we pick out here enabled that. The construction of the Internet was able to ignite and contain the explosion of interest and demand.

How the Internet reached the UK was basically a model for how the Open Rights Group started. It was a group of people coming together. They put up money. There you have it. You have a network. Within 10 years, Demon, which was the corporation, was a multimillion dollar organization. The Internet beat the proprietary, commercial setups.

There's also a moral value to these attributes. We were both lucky to come up with this idea and to catch this window of opportunity. Once it had spread past a certain critical mass, people being able to add their own nodes to the network made it a done deal.

I feel the same way about human rights. We're extremely lucky. The UN Bill of Rights has signatories all over the world because it has the same attributes as the Internet. Once you have this idea in your head, you compare everything else to it. There's very little disagreement about what human rights are. There's a lot of debate about when we get to break them.

The Brazilian constitution has their equivalent to the First Amendment. It says expression of thought is free but anonymity is forbidden. So it's moot for us to debate that because it goes against what's in their constitution. There are limitations to the argument. There are variations. The growth of the Internet has been mapped out in different places differently. Its not easy, when we do these comparisons, to work out which will work out and which won't.

The arrangement of the economics of the network means that a lot of our own ISPs won't roll out their own DSL offerings but just rebrand BT's DSL offering. The problem that arose was that when the BBC offered their YouTube-like service, BT was charging them per gigabyte, which was eroding their profits. We have a strange situation.

We tend to step in when there's a state intervention that's not in the interest of the network or the citizens themselves. The EFF spends a lot of time in organizations like the EU, venues in which people come together to do proactive regulation. Our biggest problem right now is that in the attempt to pre-emptively harmonize, the spirit of innovation declines and disappears.

Were we lucky to get the Internet, or were we lucky that the Internet wasn't stopped? The more we allow innovation internationally, the more we'll see the network grow and thrive. Closed networks simply aren't as good as open networks. I just went to Beijing. It's very interesting to be behind the great firewall of China. The Internet just doesn't work very well.

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