EFF Expands Influence on Digital-Rights Frontier

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has risen from an obscure nonprofit group to a major political and legal force in national disputes over digital privacy and freedoms. Most recently, it sued AT&T over the phone giant's relationship with the National Security Agency (NSA).

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The world of hi-tech business is monitored by an influential private group called the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The EFF represents hackers, Internet entrepreneurs and simply people who think their free speech or online privacy rights are being violated. The group is in court today in a suit against the AT&T phone company, for giving customer records to the National Security Agency.

Reporter Shirley Skeel has this profile of the EFF.

SHIRLEY SKEEL reporting:

It all started in 1990. John Perry Barlow was a cattle rancher and songwriter for the Grateful Dead. John Gilmore and Mitch Kapor were millionaires who made their fortune in technology. It was the early days of the Internet, and the federal government had begun raiding computer hackers. Mitch Kapor says he became alarmed at the treatment of these mostly young computer wizards.

Mr. MITCH KAPOR (Co-Founder, Electronic Frontier Foundation): What they were doing, for the most part, was like vandalism.

SKEEL: Yet they are being treated like enemies of the state, Kapor says. So the three men announced they would launch a civil rights group to protect the small players in cyberspace. Immediately, critics accused them of defending criminal hackers.

Mr. KAPOR: In a sense, we were. But if you understand the history of civil liberties, it's often the case that the people who's civil liberties are most at risk are people whose behavior is in some respect problematic. That's where you test what it means to have civil liberties.

SKEEL: And in that spirit, the Electronic Frontier Foundation was born.

Ms. CINDY COHN (Legal Director, Electronic Frontier Foundation): Thank you, Paul. And I'll get back to you either way.

SKEEL: Today, the San Francisco-based nonprofit has 23 employees, including eight lawyers. It goes to court for bloggers, programmers, and ordinary computer users, relying on funding from its 11,000 members and charitable foundations. In January, the EFF sued AT&T, after the phone company was accused of illegally handing over the telephone records of millions of Americans to the National Security Agency.

EFF legal director Cindy Cohn says the group's work is particularly important in these times.

Ms. CINDY COHN (Legal Director, Electronic Frontier Foundation): The Executive Branch of the government has all by itself decided to roll back over 200 years worth of the way this country has been run.

SKEEL: The Electronic Frontier Foundation has an annual budget of just two and a half million dollars, but there are 200 lawyers nationwide who have volunteered to handle EFF cases pro bono. And no wonder. Some of them set legal landmarks. For example, thanks to EFF actions, law agencies now need a warrant to access private email.

Peter Swire, law professor at Ohio State University, says the EFF has made strides in online rights, but it has its limitations.

Professor PETER SWIRE (Ohio State University): They've been very affective, but they're up against some pretty powerful foes. Now, when it comes to affecting Congress, or affecting the Executive Branch, they don't have the same ability there.

SKEEL: Among those powerful foes is Hollywood. Last year, the EFF was on the losing side of a legal dispute between the U.S. entertainment industry and makers of file-sharing software, including Grokster. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled it's a violation of copyright law for software companies to induce people to illegally share music or films downloaded from the Internet.

Patrick Ross is a senior fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a free market oriented think tank. He says in this case the EFF turned on the people who needed protection most, the artists.

Mr. PATRICK ROSS (Progress and Freedom Foundation): I think about that aspiring musician. He's dreaming of making it to the big time, and I don't believe that his big time consists of receiving a miniscule annual check from some licensing agency.

SKEEL: EFF's Cindy Cohen doesn't share Ross's perspective about the file-sharing case, and expects this is one battle the group will return to. For now, its hands our full. It's in court today for its privacy lawsuit against AT&T. The federal government wants the lawsuit dismissed on national security grounds.

For NPR News, I'm Shirley Skeel.

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