The EFF discuss online privacy & the future of ICANN

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The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is a non-profit organisation defending civil liberties in the digital world. It's fighting to defend privacy, freedom of expression, digital consumer rights, and innovation on the Internet. If you’re living in the ‘free world’ and think this all sounds a bit far-removed for the average netizen. 2013/2014 has been a bonanza of NSA spying, webcam interceptions, Internet censorship, not to mention net-neutrality. The Internet needs organisations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation in its corner.

EuroDNS interview with the EFF

Luc, our legal eagle, spoke with Danny O’Brien (International Director) from EFF to discuss online privacy, Internet politics and why civil liberties are just as important in the online world.

For our European readers who may not be familiar with EFF’s work, would you explain in a few words what EFF is, and what you do?

Sure: the Electronic Frontier Foundation works to make sure that the human rights and civil liberties you have in the offline world remain when you go online. When your right to free expression is challenged by online censorship, we work to stop it. If your right to privacy is affected by government surveillance, we investigate and challenge that surveillance. We have technologists, lawyers and activists on staff. We've been around since 1990, and helped create and defend some of the most important precedents of the modern net, like the idea that it should be censorship-free, and that we all have the right to strong encryption.

So you are not only active in the US?

I run our international team, which has seven people working full-time on global Internet issues. EFF has a lot of regional knowledge tied up with our battles within the United States, but we also speak up for the rights of all Internet users in international fora like WIPO, UNESCO and the United Nations human rights committee. We also work to support local digital rights groups, either with logistics or by amplifying their voice. I helped start the UK's Open Rights Group; another of our international team is Peruvian and works closely with groups there and in the rest of South America. Our free-expression director is moving to Berlin shortly to be closer to the action in the Middle East and Europe. So we're all over the place, in the best sense of that phrase!

We’re a domain registrar, which means like other registrars we are required to enter into an accreditation agreement with ICANN to be allowed to register domain names.

We are strong believers in the current global multi-stakeholder model. As such we welcome the US government announcement of its will to transition the stewardship responsibilities of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions to the global multi-stakeholder community.

However, it seems that the blogosphere was set ablaze by this announcement. Do you see this as a good thing or a bad thing? Do you think it’ll make the Internet a better place, end free speech, or largely change nothing?

I think that both the US government and ICANN itself felt they needed to transition the core services away from direct US government control after the Snowden revelations devastated the US government's default stance that it was a safe pair of hands for managing the Internet. EFF doesn't often intervene in this debate. Our preference is to work out ways to emphasise and accelerate the Net's natural decentralised tendencies so that there aren't any "single points of failure" for the Internet, either technologically or in terms of governance.

In my opinion ICANN should go further and cut all ties with any specific government and embrace the international status Switzerland has recently granted them. Do you think I’m being too optimistic, or do you see this happening in the near future?

I think a lot of people worry about an autonomous ICANN, freed of any constraints except an inbuilt need to fund and justify themselves. On the other hand, no-one agrees as to exactly what authority ICANN should submit to.

EFF consciously doesn't play a part in that debate. National law outranks ICANN's regulations, so better to keep an eye on national law. And the power of the current domain name system is so contingent on the nature of the system itself. So a better long-term solution might be to allow DNS the opportunity to evolve away from a locked-down system through new technologies.

We are currently waiting for ICANN to officially exempt us from their data retention policy (illegal under European privacy laws). Would you like to see similar privacy laws in the US?

United States privacy law is such a mess. It's a patchwork of law taken from different sectors of society, with wildly varying and often archaic rules about health records, video store rentals, phone records, and so on. EFF's biggest fight within that context is with the current American judicial principle that as soon as you pass your information to a third-party you lose any expectation of privacy.

That's clearly crazy in a world where so much digital information is mediated through third-parties, from domain registrars to phone companies to Google and Facebook. It's got to the point where the corporations are pressing for privacy law changes as much as anyone else: on their own terms, of course. And that's always the worry, of course: that by asking for good, blanket, privacy law, you'll end up with terrible privacy law.

It's often forgotten that EU privacy law is part of a global privacy movement, which includes countries like Canada, Japan, Australia and soon (crossed fingers) Brazil. In my wildest dreams, I'd like the world, and the United States, to respect a highest common denominator of those laws, with say Japan's broad definition of personal data, the EU's emerging integration of privacy rights as a human right, the US's strong (at least in theory) safeguards against government misuse of data. The challenge with globalisation is that in closed-room international deals the world's privacy protection gets ground down to the lowest common denominator instead, especially when dealing with individual rights, that have no interest group defending them.

The above is a typical example of the kind of conflicts that arise with globalisation. Do you think a balance between state sovereignty and censorship can be found?

I don't think there's a conflict: freedom of expression is a universal human right. That right should not change depending on where you stand on the planet.

Some countries, including very recently Germany, have threatened to build their own national Internet. Do you think this could be the future of the web? Is there a danger that the frontiers that the Internet helped to bypass, could be recreated online?

I don't think there's a coherent vision of what a democratic, open, "national Internet" could possibly look like. The idea is used as a threat, in the same way as sanctions against a country are used as a threat, but the mapping to the Net just doesn't make sense.

The only models for a national Internet we have are places like Iran and China, who have erected barriers between them and the rest of the world at great economic cost to their citizens. The lack of an alternative vision of a divided Net makes me think that these initiatives are either doomed, or will end up with an awful patchwork of half-baked solutions which will fix nothing, and gut the primary advantage of the Internet as a seamless global network. We saw that with SOPA and ACTA, and we'll see with any other such initiative: the moment it gets near to being proposed, those who see the free and open Internet as a vital part of their lives will rise up and oppose it.

How can our readers support EFF?

We have thousands of supporters around the world; thank you for considering helping us fight for users' rights! First, we're funded by individuals who care about digital freedom. If you’d like to donate, that would be great. We also have a thorough list online of all the other ways that you can get involved.

Huge thanks to the Electronic Frontier Foundation for such an illuminating discussion.

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