Who's looking after your digital rights?

21 Apr 2014

I was recently at a formal dinner in Cambridge, where I found myself on a mixed table of computer scientists (including someone seniorish from IBM, and someone who made their living from open source software), along with some people from the finance sector. After some nice lamb, and glass or two of nice wine, talk got on to Google’s GMail, and the fact that they scan your mail in order to serve relevant adverts to you whilst using the service. One of the finance people at the table was particularly appalled that Google would scan your email and thought Something Should Be Done™.

Now, despite my hippy hair and generally liberal outlook on life, I’m also very comfortable with the idea of capitalism and I’m not particularly fussed about Google’s behaviour in this instance – when you get something for free, there’s generally bound to be a catch. Surprisingly I was alone in this view, with my dining partners all being unnerved by Google’s practices. For all my interjections, some of which they validly countered, and some not, it seemed the rest of the table’s option that this was The Thin End Of The Wedge™.

Now, this both amused and annoyed me. Not because I disagreed with the people at my table; I actually agree with the broader argument they’re trying to make about big internet businesses and access to our personal data, just less so this specific instance. No, what both amused and annoyed me was that there was a lot of very passionate Someone Should Do Something About This™, but this table of quite well educated local graduates with their variety of degrees and wealth of world experience had no idea who that should be. Which is odd, as that Someone does indeed exists. In fact, yours truly, the person at the table trying to defend Google against this swell of idealism, was not just the only person at the table who regularly donates money to this someone, but was the only person amongst our group who’d even heard of them.

Thus I found myself very quickly switching tack from standing up for a big internet business, to being the outspoken advocate for everyone at my table joining the Open Rights Group, who are indeed the Someone™ they seek.

If you’ve not come across them before, the Open Rights Group are a UK advocacy/lobbying group who are trying to represent the public when it comes to UK legislation about all things internet and digital. They are the people who, when such laws are being debated, provide the arguments on behalf of you, me, and the people at my table.

I joined up to the ORG when the previous government, in one of its final acts, rushed through the Digital Economy Act, which attempted to tackle copyright violation in the modern age. Despite the fact that as a profession I rely on strong copyright law, I disagreed strongly with this specific act’s details, so looked to support the one organisation lobbying against it – the ORG. And although the Digital Economy Act went through and in this instance the ORG were unsuccessful in preventing it, I was glad to discover there was someone there to make the counter argument in situations like this.

I want to stress that it is not the case that I believe all for profit organisations are evil and out to get us thus we need the ORG to save us (something that seemed to set my apart from my dining colleges, despite the fact that half of them worked for some for of big business). What I do believe is that to get the government to pass sane laws, you need people arguing all sides. Businesses are trying to optimise for profit, and sometimes the desire to shake up the system does us good, and sometimes it’ll do us bad. Someone needs to argue against them to provide the balance – that’s the ORG. Our elected officials are generally not experts in the areas they have to legislate on; a government minister will need to get outside information, and businesses are experts in the field and a good source of information so will almost certainly be consulted. But like all sources of information that source has a bias and an agenda, so other sources are needed. This is what the ORG do: the ORG will provide an alternative voice to government which wants to protect people over profit, ensuring that more than one opinion is heard.

This is why I send ORG money each month, and I believe anyone with concerns in this area, be they specific or general, should do similarly. The ORG play an important role in our new digital society, and exist solely on donations of those of us who care and care spare a little money.

Unfortunately the ORG isn’t well heard of outside core nerd circles. Even the person at my table who made a living from open source software, who is statistically thus the most likely to care about such advocacy groups, had only vaguely heard of them but assumed they were something to do with the US equivalent, the better known Electronic Frontier Foundation, which they’re not. If a well educated and well connected techie doesn’t know about the ORG, then it’s hardly surprising that the man from finance does not too I guess, and perhaps then no surprise that the ORG only has 2100 members in a country of 63.2 million people.

I suspect I failed to convince anyone at my table to sign up with the ORG – there was a lot of umming and erming once I’d explained that the mythical Someone™ already existed, and what they needed to do, if they really felt passionate about it, was send them a fiver each month to help fund the people lobbying for what they were a few minutes ago so very worried about. But this is what alcohol does to people – they briefly get very excited about a topic and then the next day forget about it. The only advantage I have over the others is I already have a direct debit set up, so I can forget about it too and still know someone is out there making the counter argument.

But I make the same argument to you reading this: you may not agree with everything the ORG says (I certainly haven’t), but they provided an important service as a check/balance in our legislation system, which is not only worth supporting, but needs supporting, as otherwise it’ll go away. If you want to ensure someone is arguing for your side in such debates, then you could do a lot worse than joining the ORG.