The internet is forever changing, often not for the better. Threats to privacy and free speech grow daily. Government surveillance is legion. Big tech companies like Twitter and Facebook dominate the cyber world. Pushing back and raising legal challenges since 1990, the San Francisco based Electronic Frontier Foundation is often in the middle of the fray. The organization’s mission statement: “to make sure that technology supports freedom, justice and innovation for all the people of the world.” This news organization recently talked to EFF’s Executive Director Cindy Cohn, about the constant challenges of protecting digital freedoms.
Q: How do you balance freedom and protection?
A: We have three major tools in our tool box, law, advocacy and technology. We have a bunch of lawyers on staff, that’s our biggest team, and we (file) impact litigation. We make smart commentary and make sure your rights go with you when you go online. We do policy analysis and freedom of information act work. Our advocacy team makes that work relatable for ordinary people. Specifically, I think our membership is technological people, people who work in, and understand, technology. We have a really strong core with the people who build the tools.
Q: What are some of EFF’s technological achievements?
A: “We have a tool called Privacy Badger for Firefox and Chrome that blocks third party cookies, those little pesky cookies that track you as you are going from website to website. Privacy Badger helps put you back in control of those. On the back end, we are part of a large group that built what’s called a certificate authority. Certificate authorities are the ways that when you think you are going to your bank online, you know you are actually going to your bank online. We felt the web was very unsecure because people weren’t using this technology. Sometimes you advocate for people to make their websites more secure, sometimes you just build them a tool to just make it dead easy and free.”
Q: What do you do on the legal front?
A: On the legal side we do a lot of work defending coders, defending technologists. Especially in the realm of security, we find a lot of the people who are pointing out that our security is weak are finding themselves on the back end of legal threats and problems. We know that the way to get to a more secure digital world is to have a whole lot of people trying to find the holes and helping us plug them. We have a long standing relationship with the digital security community, especially the folks who are independent.
Q: Recently, the private equity firm Ethos Capital bought the dot-org domain designated for nonprofits from the Internet Society and is planning to monetize it. How important is the dot-org domain?
Anyone who is watching what is happening with private equity in other sectors ought to be nervous. The central place for the public interest internet is dot-org. There is a strong and thriving public interest internet that really brings us a lot of the things that I think make the internet cool and weird and funky and awesome, from Wikipedia to the Internet Archives to the website for your favorite museum to the Red Cross.
Q: What’s the threat?
A: We’re going to see increased prices, and probably going to see degradation of service. Dot-orgs never go down. If there’s an earthquake or a hurricane and you go to the Red Cross, RedCross.org is up. If you’re in a country where there is civil unrest and you need to get information out, HumanRights.org is up.
Q: What is EFF doing on this front?
A: We’ve stepped in to try to save dot-org. ICANN’s (The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) contracts with the Internet Society can be cancelled if the Internet Society wants to materially change how dot-org runs. Our first step is to try to get ICANN to put the brakes on (the purchase of the dot-org domain) and make sure who ever runs dot-org is doing it in the public interest. Silicon Valley is full of people who understand this situation and have a stake in it and they need to make their voices heard.
Q: The California Consumer Privacy Act, the toughest online protection law in the country takes effect Jan. 1. What is EFF doing to make sure it isn’t weakened?
A: We have been very involved in both trying to protect that law, trying to shore it up, trying to get comments in to the Attorney General about what the regulations ought to look like. There will be ongoing efforts by the big tech companies to water down the legislation (which, among other safety measures, allows consumers to learn what data companies collect about them). Some of the threats (to the new law) will happen in California, but some of them will happen in the form of federal laws that preempt stronger state laws. It’s really like four dimensional chess about privacy legislation and we’re trying to participate in as many of those levels as possible.
Title: Executive Director the Electronic Frontier Foundation since 2015
Education: B.A. in English, the University of Iowa, J.D. University of Michigan Law School
Born in: Iowa
Home: San Francisco’s Mission District
Five things about Cindy Cohn
- Mackey, her Bernese mountain dog, often accompanies her to work.
- Gives staffers a bottle of whiskey for filing their first Public Records or Freedom of Information request
- Former bartender
- Loves live music
- Currently reading the novel The Nix by Nathan Hill
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