Tuesday, January 10, 2012

the eff punks out on bitcoin...,

themonetaryfuture | To stand up and fight to protect lawful online activity from legal threats isn’t for the faint of heart… it takes big ones.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a two decade history of taking on cases that set important precedents to protect rights in cyberspace. This is an organisation which has not been afraid to file lawsuits against the CIA, the US Department of Defence, the Department of Justice and other agencies, as well as major corporations like Apple and AT&T.

Recently, however, the EFF seems to be blowing some chilly air of its own and their source of gumption seems to have shrunk a little. They are no strangers to the pernicious effects of ‘self-censorship’; this is the ‘chilling effect’ where discussion, debate and activities are effectively destroyed before they even get started. It is the fear to speak freely or the fear to participate, because of vague legal threats or ill-defined laws. It is the uncertainty about where one’s rights begin and end, and the fear of crossing an invisible line. It is the providers closing or restricting customer accounts; not based on specific legal requests but based on some fuzzy margin even less well defined than the law itself.

Let’s see how the EFF explains its retreat from using one specific technology: Bitcoin, which is not inherently illegal and qualifies more than most as a frontier technology.

EFF and Bitcoin (June 20, 2011)

What then should we make of this statement from the EFF which reveals a primary motivator for avoiding a particular technology is legal uncertainty? At first glance this might make some sense, as ‘understanding the legal issues’ seems like a prudent first step, but you only need to step back into the EFF’s early history to see that their very birth was not just taking place in, but in a way inspired by an era of just this sort of uncertainty regarding electronic frontiers. Take this quote from ‘A Not Terribly Brief History of the EFF’.
"I realized in the course of this interview that I was seeing, in microcosm, the entire law enforcement structure of the United States.
Agent Baxter was hardly alone in his puzzlement about the legal, technical, and metaphorical nature of data crime."
This surely shows that the legal environment was not only uncertain – but positively muddy and misunderstood even by those tasked to investigate and enforce the law.

Arguably, law enforcement lags in their understanding of new technology just as much today. The ‘ambiguous nature of law in Cyberspace’ was almost a defining feature of the landscape, and back then, it didn’t stop the EFF from riding out into it; legal guns at the ready, if not blazing.

The EFF about-face regarding Bitcoin came shortly after a flurry of publicity regarding US Senators Schumer and Manchin raising their concerns about the use of bitcoins for illegal purchases on the silk road tor website. The senators mischaracterised bitcoin as “untraceable”. Senators seek crackdown on “Bitcoin” currency Fist tap Dale.