how the personal became political

How I Became a Freedom Fighter — A story in two parts:

Part 1: As a teenager in the 80s, I knew libraries were pretty cool. I used them to pursue various odd interests too embarrassing to blog (e.g., the various sequels to The Scarlet Pimpernel). When things were unspeakably tough for me at home, libraries were a refuge. When my friend’s parents burned her science fiction and fantasy out of fears of ‘satanism’, and forbade her to read anything not assigned by church or school, libraries were more than a refuge: they saved her sanity. When I read in history and newspapers alike about librarians or the American Library Association standing up against would-be book-burners or book-banners, librarians seemed actually heroic as well as sane: Defenders of Freedom! Purveyors of Knowledge! Keepers of the Light! And so on.

Gentle Reader, I became a Librarian, and eventually an Internet Evangelist. Libraries and librarians are an obvious and unqualified good: they provide access to information. They let people make their own choices. I started using email and bulletin boards as a student in the late 80s, and was thrilled by these new communication technologies. As a librarian in the 90s it was obvious that what we now call the Internet was a tremendous multiplier: people would ultimately be able to access anything, but more than that, they would be able to publish anything. Democracy! Printing Presses! Gutenberg! Revolution! The Ultimate Fulfillment of Human Potential! And so on.

Part 2: In the late 90s, I was a tech educator & librarian, in San Francisco. I ran an educational center at the Exploratorium, one of the coolest museums ever, dedicated to letting people learn how to learn. I was all about experiential learning. Plus I got to play with a lot of cool media technology.

Unfortunately, it seemed that despite the best efforts of librarians, Human Potential hadn’t been quite fulfilled yet. The censorware wars were raging as states and universities and localities tried to ‘protect’ their citizens and employees from information. Congress passed the Telecommunications Reform Act in 1996, simultaneously banning ‘indecent’ communications and lowering media ownership limits — the sole nod toward Human Potential in that benighted legislation was the establishment of the E-Rate program to pass some money to libraries and schools for Internet access. Two years later Congress passed the Mickey Mouse Protection Act (aka the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act) and the wretched Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Watching all this legal and political maneuvering with frustration, I was increasingly interested in the details of the seemingly arbitrary rules, and how the grand principles were oftentimes frustrated by those details. So I applied to law school, and was thrilled to be accepted at Boalt — at that time, the only law school that really did public interest IP. I knew of Professor Pam Samuelson’s work, and found out that she had just endowed a law clinic to work on issues of law, technology & public policy — I couldn’t be happier. So I went to law school, and worked on a bunch of cool projects before and since. With any luck, I’ll keep on figuring out ways to get by in the world, using my skills & knowledge, and trying to be a net positive. Pretty much what most people do, I guess.

On my best days, I love people. As a species we’re just unbelievably brilliant. We’re good at talking & thinking. We’re so good at it, in fact, that we constantly devise new ways to do it, better and more efficiently and more often and in different funky ways and over different media. From art to science to household gossip, it’s all about us communicating to each other, using movement, sound, vision; different languages for different messages in different media. Speaking, writing, printing, broadcasting, blogging: using every sense and every force of nature we shape the world around us, just to talk to one another. “Information wants to be free” is a canard. Information has no wants or desires. People want information to be free. It seems to be human nature — maybe animal nature, maybe the nature of all life — to communicate, to communicate freely.

It’s probably only natural that some would feel threatened by this human urge to communicate, and others would see it as a potential resource for exploitation. Any force of nature can be dammed for profit or the pleasures of control. Hundreds of years ago, the efforts of governments to control printing presses led to copyright statutes and sedition laws. And in response, people said No! We want to increase and share information, and in this country these revolutionaries devised the First Amendment and assigned copyrights to Authors, not printers.

Today, the struggles continue: governments pass laws regulating speech, punish people for sharing information, and hand the control of information to media corporations. And in response, 15 years ago, some people got together and formed the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The staff at EFF work to protect our rights to talk, to listen, and to share information using the tremendous power of communications technology. Because of their labors, in part, people have more opportunities to stand up and speak, write, print, broadcast, and blog. So happy 15th birthday, EFF. May there be many more.