Saturday morning, Westminster University was heaving with the number of people who turned out for this year's Open Rights Group Conference (aka #ORGcon). Drawn to see the fantastic line up of speakers - which read as a who's who of Internet geeks & digital rights gurus - it was also clear there was something extra about ORGcon 2012: a rally-cry in the air.
Cory Doctorow, activist, journalist and co-editor of tech blog Boing Boing, opened the conference by explicitly re-drawing the battle lines away from "the first-level copyright wars" to "the coming war on General Purpose Computing". His point was that information freedom in the digital arena is fast broadening out from being a dispute about copyright regulation to a war whose stakes are no less than computer technology itself.
The threat posed stems from the naive and damaging attempts by regulators to control more and more about how digital technology operates. Paraphrasing Cory, the dangerous attitude of manufacturers and regulators - usually backed by powerul lobby groups - is to seek a general purpose computer "appliance" that does everything "except what scares them", and an internet that shares information from any point to any point "except information they're afraid of". The consequences will be far-reaching for networked communications unless, as citizens, we fight back.
It was clear that ORGcon was still feeling the reverberations of the post SOPA/Pipa victory as much as it was gearing its participants up for the next big struggle over the Anti-Counterfeiting and Trade Agreement (ACTA), dubbed by Cory as "real legislative toxic waste". The day was capped off by Internet expert Laurence Lessig who delivered a talk on "Recognizing the fight we're in: A plea for some realism about IP activism". visionOntv was fortunate to catch up with him just after his keynote for a quick interview:
Europe's answer to SOPA/Pipa similarly aims to tackle Internet piracy by facilitating DNS blocking. Yet, what is most concerning about the bill is the secrecy in which its negotations have taken place. As ACTA teeters on the edge of being passed at the European parliament, Cory encouraged people to assist with tools such as Parltrack and Pippilongstrings (available on github) to help screen the EU proceedings and work to expose and fight the sneaky bill.
In order to understand more about exactly how ACTA works - and just how sneaky it is - watch Marc's interview with Jérémie Zimmerman from La Quadrature du Net hoinn, an advocacy group defending our rights and freedoms on the Internet:
Unsurprisingly, the conference placed emphasis on building a movement and explored some of the tools and tactics available to us as "hacktivists". A packed session in the afternoon explored a bunch of these including initiatives on digital security for activists such as Tech Tools for Activism and Ono the Robot, a guide producted by the Tactical Technology Collective. The group also considered the pros and cons of mobile apps to protect anonymity such as SecureSmartCam, a project of Witness and the Guardian Project.
Another tool is Tor, an anonymity network which offers secure circumvention of internet blockages. Tor is designed to offer us all more choice when it comes to our privacy online, but is especially useful for activists in side-stepping government censorship & surveillance efforts. Find out more about how the network works in Hamish's interview with Wendy Seltzer, fellow at Yale University and on the Board of Directors of the Tor project:
Other murky frontlines in the struggle for a citizen-centred Internet are being fought with governments and companies over privacy and open data. Sometimes seeming like counter forces in the digital space, VisionOntv found out from journalist and author Heather Brooks and Privacy International's Gus Hosein why it is vital that we pay attention to both.
So, did ORGcon gear us up for the next big fight?
This week ACTA will be decided by the European parliament and there remains a question mark in the air about exactly how we intend to fight it. In his interview with Marc, Lessig proposed making a model of the SOPA/Pipa protests by mobilizing a wide range of coalition partners & organizing blackout campaigns to pressurize the governments who will decide its fate. Yet, framing ACTA in a compelling enough way that citizens understand what's at stake remains a challenge.
In the end, Lessig's closing speech highlighted that the issue goes deeper than ACTA. In what might best have captured the "battle-cry" of ORGcon 2012, we - both as the conference's participants and more broadly as citizens - were challenged with organizing more effectively for "the war that is coming". The copyright debate itself is, after all, essentially a question about organizing: how to arrive at alternative models for building culture and commerce in the digital world.
For Lessig, that means redefining the current frontlines. For example, to stop fighting over the question of compensation for creators - who depend on copyright - to focus on the scientist, for who copyright is a block to the distribution of their work. Lessig also warned that we need to "recognize the fight we're in" - including our multibillion dollar opponents - and choose better the battles we can win.
So while ORGcon felt like a movement maturing, there is still a way to go before we are as unified as we need to be. ACTA is the imminent struggle on the horizon. The question is: how to make sure we're ready for it?