Writing for ORGZine – a trip down memory lane

I’ve been writing for ORGZine for about three months now, and I can’t shake a certain feeling of deja-vu. I used to be, if not active then certainly extremely interested, in a few areas of Digital Rights back in the late 90s and early 2000s. My particular geekdoms were largely centred around the Open Source space and the music downloads space (Remember Napster?). I then graduated from University, got a real job in IT and promptly became much less of a geek in my spare time – until I came across the Open Rights Group a couple of years ago and was persuaded to become a supporter when they took on the BBC over a Dalek knitting pattern. So what had I missed in the intervening years? Not much, as it turns out.
For a start, we are still having the copyright debate, except that now the UK has followed in the footsteps of the US DMCA with our own Digital Economy Act. Okay, Creative Commons has expanded its reach, which is great news, but the mainstream content industries continue to stick their collective heads in the sand, sometimes in creative new ways. What’s a girl to do other than try to hit them where it hurts, and point out alternatives to the monumental stupidity that is DRM?
Things aren’t much better on the Open Source side. Writing this article on a possible security backdoor in OpenBSD and the advantages of Open Source security, I might as well have been back in the year 2000. When I mentioned it to a friend who shares some of my interests in the Digital Rights space he said, “But surely that debate has been had and concluded and the good guys won ten years ago?” To some extent that’s true: within certain communities – geeks and techies like my friend and me – that debate is well and truly dead. To the public at large, and more scarily to most of our leaders and policy makers, this is still new ground. What finally convinced me that I had really gotten into my time machine and headed back ten years was this wonderfully sarcastic Computer World article on the recent “cyber espionage” announcement by the Foreign Office. I looked at the name of the author and rather thought that sounded familiar. Eventually it clicked: back when we were still having the Open Source debate, Glyn Moody wrote Rebel Code, a wonderful little book on the history of Linux and the Open Source movement. And here he is, still preaching Open Source, and here I am, still doing the same.
What both the copyright and Open Source space have in common is that law-makers are easily influenced by powerful lobby groups in these areas – the content industry and technology vendors. There is currently one person in the House of Commons who has worked as a scientist (Julian Huppert, MP), and not that many more who have worked in technology. They are under a powerful onslaught of “education” by lobby groups. Those of us who settled these debates ten years ago amongst ourselves need to reach out to our MPs, our ministers, and where possible to key civil servants and try to reverse some of that brain washing they’ve undergone by lobbyists.
What you can do? You can join the Open Rights Group. And next time the UK government declares it doesn’t know how much it spends on IT but by golly, it’ll spend less!, you can write to your MP or the responsible minister and try to educate them. Be polite, be gentle – explain the issues, explain why they should care. One by one, sooner or later, we’ll get them.

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