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Griffin, Froomkin join EFF board

New broom time (we can but hope)

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The future of digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation looks faintly brighter today with the creation of an Advisory board, created to help the group form some effective long-term strategies.

Amongst the 12 advisors named are the FSF's Eben Moglen, and Princeton professor Ed Felten. But we're pleased to see two names familiar to veteran Register readers, music entrepreneur Jim Griffin and lawyer Michael Froomkin [home page - blog] of the University of Miami's law school.

Froomkin has devoted much of his time in recent years to examining how consensus is formed to provide a legitimate basis for online institutions, penning Habermas@discourse.net: Toward a Critical Theory of Cyberspace and although he has used the word "meme" on his blog (tut, Michael, we think you mean "theme" or "idea") he's proved himself a scrupulous and tenacious ICANN watchdog.

Former Geffen CTO Jim Griffin, who co-runs the Pho mailing list, is probably the most passionate and articulate advocate of modernizing the compensation framework for the digital distribution of music. We interviewed Jim back in February, and your reporter drew heavily on Jim's persuasive arguments when giving this talk to the music industry earlier this Fall.

All credit to the EFF for recognizing that fresh thinking is needed. The group's most notable successes have been on behalf of individuals who've falled foul of the rights' holders ugly use of litigation: such as "DVD Jon" Johansen and Dmitri Sklyarov. But the group has been outflanked at almost every turn by the better-funded copyright lobby. At times it's even managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory: for example in the case of Senator Orrin Hatch. Hatch was so disgusted by the way the recording industry treated artists he threatened to introduce flat fee licenses, but was wooed by persistent flattery from the RIAA. He's now one of the staunchest pigopolist advocates.

And earlier this year much of the organization's outstanding work on privacy was undone by Brad Templeton 'Google isn't so spooky' analysis of GMail, which kindly overlooked the implications of Google's defense of the service: that only machines read your email. As former DoJ cybercrime czar Mark Rausch pointed out here, that's an invitation for the the FBI to point its machines at your email too, and make the same defense.

Ah, what problems, what confusion these techno utopians create for themselves! So not all of the EFF's ineffectiveness can be explained by a lack of resources, or its location: 2,300 miles further from Congress than its rival lobby groups. The organization was born out of the popular technical ethos of libertarianism, in which compromise is distrusted and direct political engagement is shunned for a faith in market forces. And being lawyers, they like to fight cases, naturally.

"They like to lose - they feed on the indignation," thunders one reader, who characterizes the EFF as "a bumbling third-rate ACLU with high-tech airs. They're mucking about with some important cases, and every time they lose, we lose."

Ouch.

While there are welcome signs that the EFF is shedding some of its previously ideologically-hamstrung positions - such as advertising in Rolling Stone, and sending a blogger to the WIPO discussions - there's some way to go yet. The decision to advocate a "voluntary" collective license is going to go safely nowhere, to the contentment of the recording rights holders - as it's a compact that everyone in the world can sign up to except the people who matter. (The rights holders themselves)

Still, the new appointments are a welcome sign that new tactics may be deployed. At every turn the tech lobby has been outsmarted and outfought, losing almost every important case it's engaged in, and we now practically have to beg Congress not to detonate our computers. It's going to be a long haul back. Sitting back and praying that either the market, or some as yet unknown emergent phenomena, will take care of things is no longer an option. ®

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