This is from the April 7, 2018 event. Complete transcription and video available here at the Internet Archive. (A complete index of all speakers is forming here on the Aaron Swartz Day website.)
Cindy Cohn: Our second panel of speakers are Shari Steel, John Gilmore, Stephen Levy, and Joy Ito. And although she ended up at the end, our first speaker up is Shari Steele.
Cory Doctorow: So Shari was the turnaround specialist that turned the EFF into the powerhouse it is today. She calls herself a “First Amendment Junkie.” And when I met her, EFF was on the rocks. John Gilmore had brought it back to San Francisco from adventures on the East Coast and they lost their digs and so they were everyone was working out of their living rooms and meeting up once a week in coffee shops and today. Well, today we’re a much bigger organization and a lot of it – well so much of it is due to Shari and her leadership. One of the places where I got to see her shine is in managing her Board, and it’s quite an irascible and amazing board. And as you heard about Barlow, he was always a challenging board member. So I’m looking forward to hearing what Shari has to say about about being the adult supervision for John Perry Barlow. [02:47:56]
Shari Steele: Hmmm. I wasn’t going to say anything about being “the adult supervision of John Perry Barlow.”
So, I started EFF in 1992, as a staff attorney, and I’m just going to give a little aside. Mitch Kapor actually detoured his plane to stop to meet me too. (Laughs) I was in Washington D.C. and I had already interviewed with Jerry Berman and Danny Weitzner, who at the time were the EFF D.C. office, and Mitch wanted to meet me and so was on his way back to Boston from someplace or other, and stopped so that I got to meet him. And I got the job. So whatever, but when I first when I first took this job we didn’t know what EFF was going to become, but I had heard of Mitch Kapor and was really interested in working with Mitch Kapor, but had never heard of John Perry Barlow. I was not a Grateful Dead fan I was not from San Francisco. I didn’t know who this guy was. It literally took one meeting for me to become a groupie. This man had more charisma than anybody I’ve ever met and his belief in the First Amendment and in a free speech, in a society with free speech ,and a vision of the Internet as being a place for free speech, resonated so powerfully with me that he became an instant buddy.
Our first real big fight related to free speech was in 1995, when Congress passed this horrible horrible law called the Communications Decency Act, or the CDA. Barlow was, and we were all, really upset about it. As soon as it passed, we knew that was unconstitutional. And, with the ACLU, EFF challenged the law. [02:49:50]
The big part of that that was horrible was the part about indecency. It was it was Congress’s attempt to regulate pornography. And in it they had this whole part about if, basically, if the internet was was not good enough for kids then it was bad. So things like, talking about sexuality, or curse words, or talking about assisted suicide. Talking about anything that would be a topic that wouldn’t be appropriate for kids, you could possibly have been fined two hundred fifty thousand dollars per violation for doing that on the Internet.
So along with this lawsuit, and that was, of course, the EFF and ACLU way of fighting it. John Perry Barlow in his way of putting pen to paper, or typing on the keyboard, came up with his Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace. I loved this thing from the very start. Cindy and I were just talking about this the other day. [02:51:04]
So I re-read it particularly getting ready for today. A whole bunch of this was about sovereignty. The way he wrote it was was basically daring governments from around the world to come in and regulate cyberspace and saying “you have no business here.” But the reason why I loved it was because the reason why he felt that cyberspace was so important to defend was speech. It was about the free speech. And here’s a quote from the declaration:
“We are creating a world where any one anywhere may express his or her beliefs no matter how singular without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”
As a first amendment attorney yes as a first amendment attorney those those words still still give me chills. So in 1997, those indecency provisions of the CDA were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Yay us. And ten years later Barlow, was asked to defend or talk about his Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace. And he kind of talked a bit about the sovereignty your stuff but he gave us some more beautiful language that I’m going to share with you here. [02:52:27]
“I still dream of a world where anyone could express anything he or she chooses, no matter how odious or unpopular, without fear of official reprisal. I dream of a world where anyone else can either here or ignore those expressions as they choose, but will at least be able to make that choice with similar immunity. I dream of a world where anyone who wants to know something will be able to learn the truth about it, regardless of his or her economic status, social standing or race. I imagine a future where intelligence will be the primary economic resource and the location of one’s cerebral cavity will be irrelevant to the earning potential of its contents. I have not given up on the idea that as a species we can be more humane and fair. Nor have I forsaken the notion that the greater understanding bred by universal access to knowledge is the key to increasing these qualities in us.” [02:53:30]
Yeah. And that’s the thing about Barlow. He wanted to hear all different kinds of viewpoints. He knew more people who had divergent ways of looking at things, because that’s how he grew. That’s how he thrived. He was always learning. He always wanted to know more. He was always encouraging voices. He was always encouraging people to talk to each other. To have conversations where you normally wouldn’t maybe have thought that this was somebody that you might have something in common with. He was fascinating, and he was dynamic, and he helped us create an Internet that has all sorts of fascinating and dynamic speech in it. Thanks. [02:54:23]
Q & A
Cindy Cohn: Thanks. Maybe for Shari or any of you actually. Looking to the future (garbled question) So I believe if I can rephrase this “looking to the future how can freedom of the press or freedom of the Internet be manipulated by would be tyrants and how do we fight it?” I added that last part myself.
Shari Steele: Is that a hypothetical? I’m having little bit of trouble with this because I think we are seeing how it can be manipulated by would be tyrants, and that’s it’s pretty terrifying actually, because it requires us to be diligent about about paying attention and about following trails and about being honest with what actually is happening. The people who have the knowledge sharing that with us. I don’t know how that’s going to play out. I know that right now it makes it very scary. It brings a darkness to the communications that are not not making me feel comfortable.
Cindy Cohn: Here’s one maybe for Shari. Some people are advocating for an Internet Bill of Rights or a digital bill of rights. Net neutrality is now controversial (Cindy looks up and says “not in my house.”) How can we be sure that government regulation is appropriate for something like the Internet which is supposed to protect free thought. I did. I took some liberties with that question. [03:46:55]
Shari Steele: It’s a really hard one. So government regulation is a double edged sword. And anytime that we are trying to bring the government in you have to make sure that there isn’t overreaching. And a piece of legislation, as it gets started, as it was originally introduced often gets compromised in ways that you sometimes can’t even imagine what’s going to happen to it. That’s all a very long winded way of saying that it would be very difficult for me to answer that question in a vacuum. A particular piece of legislation is really the way you need to look at these kinds of issues as to whether or not it could be the solution that you’re looking for. I’m not doing day to day long legal work anymore, so I think that there are probably better people including Cindy, to answer this question so maybe she has something more enlightened than what I just shared. [03:48:04]
Cindy Cohn: Sure. I think that a way to parlay that. See what she does. I do think that the questions we need to ask ourselves is not whether the government should pass laws that regulate the Internet or whether it shouldn’t. I think there were some fundamental questions about that maybe early on, but the internet has always been a place where a law was going to apply in one way or another, and we have to ask ourselves the harder questions which is “How do we want law to apply in the online environment? And how do we make sure that we protect freedom from law even in this space where there’s going to be laws.” So Shari’s right. We do look at each question individually. I’ve never been sure that we needed an Internet Bill of Rights because we have a Bill of Rights. I’ve never thought that we needed Universal Declaration of Internet Rghts because we have an International Declaration of Human Rights and until we have the AI and we have to figure out what that codicil looks like. I think those rights will hold for us. If we’re smart, and we’re thoughtful, and we think carefully about how we want to apply them in this new context. I don’t think people need to worry. I don’t think we want to start from scratch again about whether we think the right for freedom of expression is something we want to protect or whether we think people want to be protected against search and seizure or whether we think people want to be able to be protected against summary execution. I think humanity’s thought all that through already and we came to mostly the right decisions. We need to make sure that we’re hyper careful about how those things get presented in in this new environment. And frankly that’s been my worry for the last 28 years and I don’t think we’re done yet. [03:49:58]
Transcription by Lisa Rein (Co-founder Aaron Swartz Day & Creative Commons, and friend of John Perry Barlow). Lisa Rein used Teme to start – and then cleaned it up by comparing it to the video, over many days :) Corrections are very much appreciated-please send them to: lisa[@]lisarein.com.
Complete transcription and video available here at the Internet Archive. (A complete index of all speakers is forming here on the Aaron Swartz Day website.)