There’s never been a more important time to be aware of the issues around Digital Rights, whether your main concern is copyright, privacy, or internet access. You can debate whether being able to get online is a human right, or is the tool that now enables many of your human rights, but either way, it’s an essential utility for many, many people, and if you don’t get involved, you leave it to big business and your government to make the decisions that will affect you.
So a good time to attend my first ORGCon, organised by the Open Rights Group.
ORGCon 2012 – was it a good event?
It’s tricky to seperate out the event itself from the essential topics it covered, but in essence, it was a really well put together event. As a non-member it cost £26, but the line-up of speakers included Lawrence Lessig and Wendy Seltzer visiting from the U.S along with Cory Doctorow as the three ‘headliners’ ORG themselves picked out to promote the event.
The venue was the University of Westminster, and it worked pretty well, aside from some slight congestion in narrow passageways. The main room was big enough to seat everyone, and by running four streams of talks and activities it meant that everyone was able to cram into pretty much every event, although the ‘Defeating ACTA’ talk did prove so popular it spilled out into the corridor. It was also a very central location, just yards from Oxford Circus, which was particularly handy when public transport tried to make me miss Cory Doctorow’s opening talk – I made it in time to catch about half of it.
The day included open space/unconference sessions which sadly I didn’t check out due to some of the other talks I felt were essential, but they apparently went well, and everyone was invited to the pub etc to carry on chatting (I ended up heading home after, mainly due to post-cold/flu exhaustion!).
The good news if you didn’t attend is that all talks were filmed and will be available online at some point – but I definitely think it was worth seeing Doctorow, Lessig et al talk in person and experience the passion, enthusiasm and intellect that each has.
So first up was Doctorow’s ‘The Coming War on General Purpose Computing’, an updated version of a talk he’s previously given on how copyright is just a minor skirmish as increasingly general purpose computing devices are restricted by spyware and rootkit methods which are similar to those used in repressive regimes. I stayed in my seat to catch Wendy Seltzer on Organizing for the Open Net, and both were extremely interesting and useful talks, followed by a panel debate on the Communications Bill and Copyright Enforcement.
A nice day and indecision over lunch meant I skipped the lunchtime ORG volunteer sessions, but I did catch a bit on How Secure is the Anonymisation of Open Data with Ross Anderson of Cambridge University, before failing to get into Defeating ACTA and lurking in the corrider for Jeremie Zimmerman and Erik Josefsson, before finally snaffling a seat for People not Profiles: Do Not Track & Data Protection followed by the Lessig closing keynote on IP activism.
Rather than dissecting each talk one by one, the overall themes of the day were a lot of useful information, some inspiration, and some very useful approaches to reframing and refocusing how you might put your effort into campaigning or activism in favour of individual digital rights. Lessig, in particular, opened up the ways in which future efforts could be far more successful in the wake of action over SOPA and PIPA.
The only minor criticism was that sometimes the information on practical steps was missing from the talks I happened to be in – there were other sessions which covered things such as activist tools, but some of it did feel a bit like a recap of information that you might have already put together if you followed rights activity over the last couple of years. I suspect that was why ‘Defeating ACTA’ and the manner in which is was delivered proved to be so popular – if you haven’t checked out La Quadrature du Net, it’s worth taking a look, particularly as they have a full English version of the site!
It might have also been helpful to have had some way to better integrate the non-ORG faithful, as I wasn’t the only person who was new to the event and would have felt a bit isolated if I hadn’t bumped into a couple of people I knew (I went old school after gadget failure). But the mix of attendees and speakers was really interesting as much in the crowd as onstage. It was great to hear some of the insight from Google’s UK Policy Manager, Theo Bertram, and from Tom Lowenthal of Mozilla on Do Not Track in a session shared with Lillian Edwards on data protection regulations.
Will I attend again?
Definitely – although it was quite interesting at times being someone who believes in digital rights, and the rights to individual privacy on one hand, and on the other works on projects and with clients where user data and advertising are essential to offering a better service. I didn’t get a chance to raise a couple of the questions I had regarding both Google and Mozilla unfortunately, but I know who to ask now, so will go into more detail in due course, but I did come away with a slightly strange feeling that on one side we have the forces of big business and government, and on the other we have privacy and rights groups and campaigners – the one voice missing seemed to be that of the small businesses that are getting caught in the middle.
Although it was a bit of a long day – getting up not long after 6am, and getting back at almost 9pm after delays due to inebriated rail passengers, it’s definitely given me a lot of things to think about, work on and blog about. And where else can you discuss politics with the pirate party on the way back from lunch?