Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Our Rights Online: Suw Charman

Suw Charman is cofounder of the Open Rights Group, as well as a social software expert and blogger. This is a rough report on her remarks at Freedom to Connect. If you have any amendments or corrections, let me know.

The Open Rights Group in the UK is a bit like the EFF only with fewer lawyers. We are a community of people who have opinions on issues like privacy, identity, and copyright – areas in which civil liberties and consumer rights are affected by digital technologies. In less than three years, the Open Rights Group has convinced the treasury that an extension of copyright on musical recordings, which is currently 50 years, would be a bad idea. We provided our community with a voice by putting the consultation document online and soliciting comments. The document that came out was very good.

We're one of the first groups to observe e-voting. We wrote a report on the findings, which was quite alarming. Not just how the e-voting worked but how people interacted with the technology. For example, in Scotland, they almost didn't realize that the results printed out on two pages.

ORG started nearly three years ago, in 2005. It started at a conference called Open Tech. There was one panel called Where Is the British EFF? Talking about whether we, in fact, needed something like the EFF in the UK. Toward the end of the question and answer session, someone stood up and said, well, I'll pledge 5 pounds a month, who else will? Almost everyone else rose their hand.

There was a real will for this to happen. There wasn't just one person standing up and saying someone shoul ddo something, there was a group of people who came together to do something. The key thing that got us together was the reaction of the blogs and the greater community. We had people nagging us about giving us money before we even had a bank account. We didn't even have a name, but we'd started a campaign on data retention. Even though we were a fledgling organization, the demands to get our act together got us going.

In the old days, when you wanted to start a movement, you had to get a photocopier. Now, you organize people online. That community has really been key to ORG. They comment on our consultation documents online. That helps us in two ways. Firstly, it helps us get a sense of how the community thinks. We've got an advisory council, but we also have a large group of people who deal with these issues all the time. The MPs respond really well to this. They know we're not an organization putting forth one particular view because we're an industry. They know we represent their constituents.

But it's not just about facilitating conversation between us and government. It's about connecting activists. And finally, we don't want to be a wagging finger organization pointing out what's wrong in government. Oh, you're being naughty. We also want to be positive. It's been really instructive to me how people will come together to discuss and tackle these issues. We can make the best of what's happening.

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