Who Wrangles the Watchmen? A Roundup of Non-Profits That Fight For Your Digital Rights

digital rights advocates roundup

As more and more of the world goes online, not everyone is waiting with open arms. Governments and corporations want to control the flow of the world’s information and keep you in the dark. We don’t think this is right. But nothing would change if all we ever did was blog about it! Here we salute three non-profit organizations who actually get up from their computers and defend our digital rights in physical courtrooms and on the streets:

The Electronic Frontier Foundation

We take it for granted nowadays that governments can’t request access to your email without a warrant. But back when electronic mail was the Wild West of intra-personal communication, honest sheriffs were in short supply.

In 1990, the Secret Service, in search of a rogue file, seized control of a small game publisher’s electronic equipment and deleted bulletin board data without warning. The owner, Steve Jackson, was forced to lay off nearly half his staff and watch helplessly as his business collapsed. There wasn’t a civil liberties group in existence that understood the technology well enough to defend him in court, so a few concerned citizens (which included a Sun Microsystems employee and a former member of the Grateful Dead) formed the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Together they convinced the court to reprimand the Secret Service and set a legal precedent to give email the same protection as postal mail and phone calls.

Another interesting victory for the EFF came five years later when a Berkeley grad student named Bernstein tried to publish his research on encryption. The only problem? According to the government, encryption was a “weapon” for scrambling enemy communication, and Bernstein’s work was considered a national security threat. The EFF sued the U.S. government and not only won Bernstein the right to publish his work, but established software as a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment.

The EFF continues to fight legal battles, but has since expanded to publish reports on digital rights and develop software (like the browser extension HTTPSEverywhere) to protect them.

Fight for the Future

The road to Internet Hell is paved with good intentions. In late 2011, SOPA, PIPA (in the U.S.), and ACTA (in Europe) were all pieces of legislation designed to curb digital copyright infringement, but were so broadly defined they would have allowed governments to censor entire Internet domains in response to a single web page. A similar bill, CISPA, would have expanded the rights of government agencies to prosecute “malicious” hackers, but at the expense of forcing corporations to share users’ online activity with the government. A few years later and these acronyms feel like a bad dream, thanks to an overwhelming stampede of dissent from the online community corralled in large part by an organization called Fight for the Future.

In addition to helping gather the 10 million petition signatures that made up the largest online protest in history, FFTF was instrumental in turning the tide by combating one of the biggest obstacles to change: apathy. Laziness is a problem in any movement, but it’s a bigger problem when trying to mobilize a group defined by their love (let’s be honest, our love) of sitting stationary in front of glowing screens. FFTF brought the fight straight to your screens with tools like GoDaddy boycott, the Internet Defense League, DoYouHaveASecret.org, and YourExcuseSucks.com. In addition to protesting in cyberspace, they also organized dozens of in-person meetings with members of U.S. Congress to turn the tide.


The organizations above were created to protect the Internet freedoms you’ve always enjoyed. Access takes it to the next level by advocating for the same rights around the world, often in places where the Internet has never been free. Access has mobilized campaigns against government censorship and surveillance in Syria, Pakistan, Turkey, Burma, Malaysia, Thailand, and most currently, the tiny island nation of Nauru.

Access makes it painfully easy to contribute, with an electronic petition next to each issue on their list of campaigns. One helpful feature is a stoplight to let you know which threats are still active and which have already been stopped in their tracks. Their most recent active target is a big one: Facebook’s Internet.org project, which poses a threat to net neutrality in the digital frontiers of the developing world. Check out their Open Letter to Mark Zuckerberg and get in on the action.

Get Involved

Itching to add your blood, sweat, and tears (or just a few dollars) to the work put in by these organizations? Get involved by contacting them through the links above. There are plenty of volunteer opportunities and even internships at these non-profits. And even if you can’t spend the time or the money, drop them a line just to say thanks!

(For even more information, the website for the fantastic book Consent of the Networked by Rebecca MacKinnon maintains a thorough list of organizations that support the cause for digital rights and Internet freedom.)



Featured image: Robert Plotz / Dollar Photo Club