At an awards ceremony in London last week, the Open Rights Group (ORG) was award the Liberty Human Rights Campaigner of the Year award jointly with mass messaging campaigner 38 Degrees for work on oversight of the proposed Snooper's Charter (the draft Communications Data Bill). The award comes at a time of significant change for ORG (of which I am a director, although not speaking on ORG's behalf here). Importantly, the Group has been permitted to act on behalf of defendants in a digital rights legal case in the UK.
ORG was formed in 2005 when 1000 people concerned about digital rights in Britain responded with their wallets to create a campaigning organisation to defend those rights. Modelled in part on the USA's Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), its presence has grown steadily in the seven years since its inception and today it shows up regularly in press reporting of issues like ACTA, the Digital Economy Act and (currently) the Communications Data Bill.
EFF has been around much longer - it was formed in 1990 - and has grown from being an advocate of digital rights policies and positions to being an active defender as well, employing exceptional staff to actually intervene in litigation and provide expert advice to courts. In some cases they even act on behalf of defendants in important law suits.
ORG has reached a turning point in its development, evidenced by two big announcements. The first is that ORG wants to expand its mission into direct engagement with legal issues. To that end, it is running an appeal to recruit new members to fund a full-time legal officer. The appeal for new members is well under way, but still needs new recruits if it is to complete. A legal officer would be able to intervene in the growing number of cases of heavy-handed intervention in online speech, such as the crazy "Twitter Joke Trial" case, where poor phrasing in recent legislation is encouraging prosecutors to act in cases for which it's entirely inappropriate.
First Court Intervention
ORG has also applied to the courts for leave to act on behalf of a large group of people who could be "speculatively invoiced" by a company claiming to act on behalf of pornographers who believe their work has been downloaded without a license. Speculative invoicing is now a well-know ploy where, based on ISP data obtained using a court order, a law firm tells its victims they have been identified as downloaders and that they can escape prosecution by paying a large fee to the lawyers. It's a legal shake-down long overdue for a legislative fix.
In this specific case, the fishing excursion for ISP data failed when the court refused to accept a disclosure order for the IP data on 6000 O2 customers. The colourfully-named firms involved - Golden Eye acting for Ben Dover Productions - have appealed, and ORG has stepped in to help ensure the 6000 network users aren't exposed to speculative invoices. Leave has now been granted and ORG needs a fighting fund to cover its potential costs in the case. Again, this is a useful expansion of ORG's role in the direction already taken by the EFF and I believe it should be encouraged.
The Open Rights Group is moving ahead with this improved role, already taking risks. I hope they get the donations and new members they need to be free to grow and deliver on this important role. The next speculative invoice from a legal leech trying to crush your free speech could be sent to you, after all.