The Year in Free Speech, Privacy and Fair Use

EFF looks back at major trends influencing digital rights, free expression, innovation and fair use, from WikiLeaks to Arab Spring to cell-phone search warrants.

Julie Jacobson · January 5, 2012

When it comes to digital rights and freedom of expression, nobody does it better than the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

The organization just posted its “2011 in Review: Watershed Moments in the Fight for Free Speech, Privacy, and Fair Use,” listing 12 top issues from WikiLeaks to Arab Spring to Internet blacklist legislation.

Below are EFF’s 12 key issues, with snippets from each.

For more “Year in Review” lists from around the Web, see our “Top Technology Trends, Stories, Products of 2011: A Compilation.

1. The Year Secrecy Jumped the Shark
Government tells Air Force families, including their kids, it’s illegal to read WikiLeaks. The month before, the Air Force barred its service members fighting abroad from reading the New York Times—the country’s Paper of Record. ... Lawyers for Guantanamo detainees were barred from reading the WikiLeaks Guantanamo files, despite their contents being plastered on the front page of the New York Times.

2. Fighting the Internet Blacklist Bills
The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) are the House and Senate version of a proposed law that would allow the U.S. Attorney General to create blacklists of websites to censor, cut off from funding, or remove from search engine indexes. ... What’s so bad about these bills, that provokes millions of letters into Congress? The problems are myriad. After all, these bills violate the Constitution, undermine your free speech, and threaten whistleblowers and human rights. The legislators don’t understand how the bills would modify the architecture of the Internet, but they won’t listen to the opposition of the architects who designed the network itself. Frankly, these bills are so bad they can’t be fixed: Internet blacklist bills must be killed.

3. California Reader Privacy Upgrade
The Reader Privacy Act ensures that government and third parties cannot access private reading records without proper justification. It establishes clear rules for businesses and standards for government and third party access to reader records. Most importantly, because of SB 602, Californians can feel comfortable using new digital book services or their corner bookstore without worrying that their personal information will be unprotected.

4. Nymwars
This year, Google launched its social networking site, Google Plus. Many Facebook users concerned about the site’s history of privacy violations and Facebook’s “real name policy,” which makes it a violation of Facebook’s terms of service to go by a name other than the one on their government-issued ID, were especially excited about the possibility of an alternative social network. ... By automatically suspending allegedly pseudonymous accounts, Google was taking a bad idea one step further, with a potential for even more widespread chilling effects on freedom of expression than we’d seen on Facebook. This clash between Google and Google Plus users became known at Nymwars, which has expanded into a catch-all term for the debate over the role of pseudonymity online.

Top Technology Trends, Stories, Products of 2011: A Compilation
2011 Year in Review for technology and electronics features lists from around the Web: consumer electronics, energy, mobile, health tech, entertainment, gadgets, world IT news and more.


5. Defending Location Privacy in Courts and Congress
In 2012, we may be getting the strongest binding precedent possible on the issue of GPS tracking of vehicles, which may also impact the cell tracking issue. That’s because just last month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case of U.S. v. Jones, which raises the question whether the government needs a warrant under the 4th amendment if it wants to attach a GPS device to your car and secretly track you for a prolonged period of time. 

6. Ever-Clearer Vulnerabilities in Certificate Authority System
At EFF we are big fans of HTTPS, the secure version of HTTP that allows for private conversations between websites and the users who are browsing those websites. But a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and in the case of the security of HTTPS, the weakest link is the hodgepodge of organizations (hundreds!) that make up our Certificate Authority (CA) system. Each “trusted” organization has the power to authenticate any website whatsoever to the end user; if any of these organizations lies or gets compromised, users are at risk. Though we’ve known that this system has been flawed for a while now, this year there were two attacks that acutely demonstrated just how brittle it has become.

  About the Author

Julie Jacobson is founding editor of CE Pro, the leading media brand for the home-technology channel. She has covered the smart-home industry since 1994, long before there was much of an Internet, let alone an Internet of things. Currently she studies, speaks, writes and rabble-rouses in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V, wellness-related technology, biophilic design, and the business of home technology. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, and earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. She is a recipient of the annual CTA TechHome Leadership Award, and a CEDIA Fellows honoree. A washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player, Julie currently resides in San Antonio, Texas and sometimes St. Paul, Minn. Follow on Twitter: @juliejacobson Email Julie at

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