What I’m doing at the Electronic Frontier Foundation

Illustration by Tsevis CC BY-SA GB

At the beginning of the year I applied to work with the EFF via the Google Policy Fellowship. Inspired by Google’s Summer of Code, the Google Policy Fellowship is a similar program aimed at supporting developments in Internet public policy. It basically offers students interested in Internet and technology policy the opportunity to spend the summer contributing to the public dialogue on these issues, and exploring future academic and professional interests.

I’ve always respected the work of the EFF. They have defended some really important internet freedom cases in the US and I was particularly impressed at their impartiality when they supported artists, Nathaniel Stern and Scott Kildall after Wikipedia threatened them for so-called trademark abuse. The EFF had represented Wikipedia before this time so it was really heartening when I saw how brave they were in their public statement about this strange accusation.

I was thrilled to learn a couple of months ago that I’d been accepted as the EFF’s Google Policy Intern – working with the awesome international team led by Gwen Hinze, Eddan Katz and Katziza Rodriguez.

I started work at the beginning of the month at the organisation’s Mission headquarters. I’m really impressed so far – by the professional way in which the staff conduct their work, at the trust that they have in one another, at the passion that they have for the issues they work on. Most of all, I’m impressed by the fact that they actually argue with one another about different perspectives. It’s very rare to find an organisation that talks the talk *and* walks the walk. EFF seems to be one of those organisations and I’m convinced now more than ever of the absolutely critical role that they play in defending civil liberties, innovation and free expression online – not just in the United States, but internationally as well.

I am working on a project to help define how global copyright rules can support digital education across borders at the global policy-making body, WIPO (the World Intellectual Property Organisation). An agency of the UN, WIPO has until now mostly been concerned with enforcing the property rights of rights holders (most of whom reside in the developed North). A few years ago, a group of countries (including South Africa) got together to try and change the focus of WIPO in a momentous proposal for a ‘Development Agenda’ at WIPO. The Development Agenda implored WIPO to recognise the critical role of intellectual property rights in fostering creativity, innovation and economic growth in developing countries, and to embark on a new development-focused work plan to explore ways in which international laws could be used to regain such balance.

That was in 2005. As I write this, the first substantial ‘development-focused’ proposal for the rights of the visually impaired is being debated at WIPO. It’s a complicated process, and I’ve spent the last week working out the impact of each competing proposal. It will be interesting to see the outcome of this meeting. It will certainly set the stage when/if WIPO gets onto the topic of exceptions and limitations to copyright for educational purposes.

I’ll be producing a paper by the end of the fellowship in August, and will hopefully carry on working with the EFF on this issue as they work with others around the world who are calling for international policies that can better facilitate innovation in the online and distance education sector. There’s an enormous opportunity here, and it seems to be the right time for positive change. I only hope that WIPO and Member states continue to think big and start to recognise the enabling impacts of IP for improving access to and quality of education everywhere.

Much work has already been done in this area. I’m a little concerned about my ability to add anything meaningful that will propel the debate forward to achieving some much-needed action. At the very least I hope to connect some of the really great writing on this issue in making the case for why education – especially online education – needs greater clarity and support from copyright law, and how WIPO is exactly the right place for this to happen. To those old (and hopefully new) friends who have done work on this issue, I’m very keen to learn more about your ideas on the key problems and solutions. Please get in touch if you’re interested in chatting more.