I went down to London yesterday – there and back in a day. I was attending the Open Rights Group’s 2012 Conference. You can find an overview of its content here.
By the by, I was on a slightly selfish mission to get one of my all-time heroes to sign a book he wrote called “Free Culture”. Conveniently enough, you can download this book free from the Internet. But I took a real printed copy to get Lawrence Lessig’s autograph – for one very particular and sincere reason: he very kindly mentioned me in the Acknowledgements. I remember emailing him at the time I was working on the OpenOffice.org open source project. I had just studied a Master in Publishing with the Spanish University of Salamanca and Santillana Publishing Group – and the world was in awful flux for some good reasons but mainly bad. In the lead-up to the Iraq War, being in distant touch with principled people like Mr Lessig allowed me to feel my love of the US could – even under such circumstances – survive its corruption.
I had very strong ideas at the time on the importance of recognising the debt that thinkers and creators always owe to those who have gone before. I have always believed in copyright, as indeed has Mr Lessig; but not in its debauched, restricting and anti-innovatory manifestations of latterday times.
Mr Lessig helped provide my emotional attachment to such ideas with the intellectual fortress of his careful and measured expositions. He allowed me to continue believing in an America which led the world in thought and imagination; which was capable of bringing into this world far more than it ever destroyed.
Even in the massive shadows that have been cast by the might of American military.
So if you ever wonder whether you might need a reason to like the US again, if – that is – you ever feel capable of doing so, you could do far worse than to read up on the marvellous past and present of this gentleman of lawyerly letters.
A curiously pragmatic hashtag; a not entirely cuddly logo; a focus on hardware rather than the softer things in life. A remix of a day where ideas I have stumbled across over the years came together in a series of ever-sharper markers in the sand. Too many things were left unsaid because so much was taken for granted as read by a learned audience of people who care so very much about the freedom side of free: believers preaching to the converted, perhaps, in fact. But these are early years for the Open Rights Group. They have a right to still preach to those who already know.
These were sessions for activists – people who already know quite a bit and were clearly thirsty to know even more.
Four sessions stand out for me. Apart from Cory Doctorow’s brilliant opening exposition of how “general purpose computing” is already well under attack from confluent forces which flock like wheeling vultures around their prey (the kind of thing which makes us miss quite sincerely the third-party ecosystems and tendencies of Microsoft times; at least, in relationship to the hardware), Lessig’s keynote speech given at the end of the conference was a devastating call to arms.
And it’s a real pity that #ORGCon was aimed primarily at geeks. The political implications of Lessig’s presentation went way beyond the cleverly self-sufficient boundaries of geekdom; his arguments, while using technology and copyright as examples of systemic abuse of our shared political systems by powerful corporations and business interests, were particularly and powerfully wedded to seriously political implications. You can get a flavour of Lessig’s theses in the short interview below made after his presentation.
One of the questions he took at the end related to the hopelessness of the coming battle whose arc his speech described. Whilst accepting the possibility that the battle would indeed be hopeless, he argued that out of love – in this case, a love he professed unashamedly for his country – he had no alternative but to continue the fight in favour of intellectual freedoms he’d embarked on more than a decade ago. “If a loved one is struck down with brain cancer, you don’t give up.” I’m sure few in the hall could have fairly disagreed with that.
More on the subject of copyright came up in the session on the Hargreaves Report (you can download the report itself here in .pdf format); all excellent speakers in very different ways. Professor Charlotte Waelde in particular made an impassioned plea – along the lines of what Hargreaves notably observed – for more properly evidence-based research in the field of copyright. I suggested that was only half of the task: both the NHS and Legal Aid debates involved submissions from evidence-based research (in the first case, doctors; in the second, lawyers) but most of these submissions fell on the stony ground of political and ideological prejudice. Evidence-based research convinces only evidence-based professionals. Quite unhappily, then, these days, as Lessig was to later underline, our politicians seem to care more about the pound in their already deep pockets than the arguments and logical debate which should – and could – reasonably occupy their intellects.
A couple of other sessions reminded me that crossover in all these debates is a priority of prime urgency. I’ve already observed how it seems a pity that non-techie people, who might nevertheless be interested in technology’s impact on modern society and its political norms, did not seem to have attended the event. One of the final two sessions I attended which highlighted this reality was an unconference on “Women and digital rights”. Some of the ideas which came out of this relatively small and entirely voluntary round table seemed to indicate that women needed clearer role models to want to get involved in the field of such rights; that more activities of outreach were needed to familiarise existing hubs of good online practice with the theory and activities of digital rights activists; and that perhaps Open Rights Group itself should begin to focus just as much on content creation industries and their participants – where a far greater representation of women may be found – as it already does on the harder and more tech-based imageries of web design, privacy technologies and the typical stuff of derring-do male-oriented Internet and computing activities.
It was also suggested that Open Rights Group might push for a model of some kind or other of localised groups across the country. I wondered whether the organisation had a clear mission statement to which such groups could adhere. This is part of what ORG currently says about itself:
Open Rights Group is the UK’s leading voice defending freedom of expression, privacy, innovation, creativity and consumer rights on the net.
We campaign to change public policy whenever your rights are threatened, by talking to policy-makers, informing the public through the media, and mobilising our supporters.
Compare and contrast with the this from EFF, ORG’s inspiration and American counterpart:
From the Internet to the iPod, technologies are transforming our society and empowering us as speakers, citizens, creators, and consumers. When our freedoms in the networked world come under attack, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is the first line of defense.
Don’t you sometimes love how Americans are able to sell themselves in such ringing terms?
A couple of other final thoughts about a massively positive event. Firstly, the session on open source in schools brought back memories, once more, of my voluntary work for OpenOffice.org. The three speakers all spoke passionately about the subject in question: the moderator, in particular, underlined the ethical element in open source software and processes. I like it very much when I hear people support free software which serves to make you free as a bird rather than simply free as in beer.
Secondly, and perhaps to strike a note of friendly advice amongst the understandable emphasis on positives on the day, my own perception as a recently signed-up member to ORG is that the organisation is doing an excellent job as a counter-lobbying organisation against a truly well-organised content industry. If, however, it wants to increase its mass of supporters, and especially in this instance address a manifest gender imbalance, it will need to become far more supporter- and member-oriented in both its branding, message, outreach and consultative structures.
I am reminded of that famous phrase which suggested one should be very careful of the competition one chooses as it would most likely as not fashion one finally in its own mirror image. In much the same way that trades unions become as monolithic and secretive as the monolithic and secretive managements they battle, so counter-lobbying organisations which limit themselves to the complex technicalities of counter-lobbying may forget that sustainable growth – especially in a decentralised and user-empowered world like the Internet – lies far more in releasing the ideas and thoughts of the many than presenting them with pre-digested campaigns which they are to readily sign up to.
Just because the result of your deliberations is right doesn’t mean the process you’ve used is the best.
I’ve seen in my own Labour Party how local enthusiasms dissipate at the first absence of any opportunity to impact and influence policy.
I wouldn’t want something as politically impactful as digital rights to go down that sorry route.
I’m sure this will not happen.
The people in charge at ORG are good and wise people.
But a little bit of crowdsourcing and opening up surely wouldn’t come amiss in precisely this digital age of empowerment.