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The guys that fight governments that spy on you

Decisions, decisions

How the EFF picks its battles

Mitch Kapor

How does the EFF choose to provide legal assistance? After all, it doesn't have infinite time or funding, and there are countless areas in which it could get involved. EFF staffers monitor info@eff.org, which anyone seeking legal help can contact; whether the team choose to put the foundation's resources behind a specific case depends on a few key points.

First, if the case will have a large impact on the law - setting a precedent for future court cases - then the EFF is more likely to get involved. Landmark cases that shape the future also help to raise awareness of the foundation's work.

Second, if the EFF can help multiple people or groups in a case, such as filing a class action lawsuit, then that's an important factor too. And finally, the EFF is particularly keen to help people and groups who simply can't afford the vast legal fees involved.

Sometimes the EFF has been criticised for being quiet on an issue, especially if a major development relating to digital rights has taken place, and half of the internet is engaged in major flame wars about it. But the EFF has to play a canny, gently paced game: "The worst thing we could do is to talk publicly before a legal strategy is in place."

So next time you see some dodgy freedom-limiting behaviour from a government or company, and there's not a whisper from the EFF straight away, the foundation could still be investigating.

EFF's biggest wins

Throughout its history, the EFF has gotten involved in some major tussles and come out on the winning side. Here's a selection of the best.

vs Apple

In the mid 2000s, Apple rumour websites were having the time of their lives. Apple's notorious secrecy, combined with its expanding range of iGadgets, meant that leaks of product information were in great demand by these rumour sites. Occasionally, intriguing facts and photos somehow slipped out of Apple HQ, which were then hard to cover up.

Now, Apple didn't like any of this, and filed a lawsuit against a bunch of online journalists, issuing subpoenas to find the identity of sources behind certain leaks. The EFF got involved and represented the journalists, stating that they had a right to keep their sources confidential. Eventually, they ruled in the EFF's favour, providing the journalists with protection against Apple's subpoenas. A big win for independent media.

vs Sony

In 2005, Sony started distributing music CDs that also contained Windows software to implement copy protection and Digital Rights Management. The programs installed hidden files, sent information back over the internet about usage of the CDs, and opened up computers to potential security holes. The whole idea was utterly disastrous from the start, yet Sony managed to ship 22 million CDs with these highly controversial programs included.

It didn't take long for a scandal to emerge, and Sony initially rebuffed the criticism, saying that the programs didn't compromise security. After a while, however, Sony agreed to withdraw the CDs, but it was only after an EFF lawsuit that the company took some proper steps to clean up the damage, offering uninstallers and pointing users in the direction of support, if they were struggling to remove the program.

vs various government agencies

One particularly nasty proposal in the early 2000s was the 'broadcast flag', from the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Essentially, this was a status code that broadcasters could send to home recording devices, telling them that they couldn't record certain programmes. This took control out of the hands of consumers, who had bought hardware and software for recording video, and handed control to the media empires.