How we started
In July 2005, a panel at the OpenTech annual conference asked: where is the UK’s version of the Electronic Frontier Foundation? The EFF has campaigned successfully for digital rights in the USA since the early 1990s, defending privacy, fair use in copyright, and free speech online. In the UK, ID cards, European software patent proposals, and intrusive, unbalanced legislation on the interception of communications, encryption, and surveillance, had left their mark. The audience at OpenTech felt that that politicians really needed to hear from people like the EFF based in the UK. Digital activists felt the need for a strong, UK-based campaigning organization.
After the conference, Danny O’Brien, then the EFF's activist coordinator, set up a pledge on Pledgebank asking for 1,000 people to fund a new ‘Open Rights Group’ by pledging donations of £5 a month. The idea was to secure enough funding to pay for a couple of members of staff. Around 600 signed up, and ORG was born at the end of 2005.
Small, regular donations from people like you have sustained ORG for over six years. Today, over 3,000 people support us in this way. This core support has enabled us to successfully apply for funding from foundations because they can see that we are here for the long term. As a result, we’ve grown from two staff to nine.
Our first campaigns
Founding executive director Suw Charman-Anderson kicked off our work with a campaign against data retention (a programme to force Internet Service Providers to store details of our online activities) and our first government submission, on copyright and digital technology for the UK’s Gowers Review.
In 2007, Becky Hogge took over from Suw, and expanded our work on copyright and privacy.
Our first genuinely big victory came that same year, when Jason Kitcat ran ORG’s campaign against e-voting. Computer security experts, including serious cryptographers, are nearly unanimous in their criticism of e-voting technologies as inherently dangerous and impossible to audit. While the Labour government was keen to “modernise” elections, we showed how expensive and difficult the idea is, and helped push it off the agenda.
Becky secured funding for our first campaign against extending the term of copyright for music and sound recordings. We exposed the bogus mathematics of the evidence submitted by the rightsholders' trade bodies and showed that the cash would end up in the hands of music labels, not musicians. We showed how it would damage the public domain and mobilised citizens across Europe against it. In the end we didn’t win, as member states agreed to term extension in 2011, but the campaign laid important groundwork for the future by building an important European alliance against regressive copyright laws.
In collaboration with the Bad Phorm campaign and with the assistance of Alex Hanff and others, in 2008 Becky mounted our campaign against the advertising company Phorm. Phorm’s business plan was to sell behaviourally targeted advertising based on information gleaned from equipment placed at ISPs that would intercept and read subscribers' web traffic. The system came to light when customers of British Telecom noticed strange things happening with their network connections which led them to realise that BT had been running secret trials of Phorm's technology.
When, in 2009, Jim Killock took over as Executive Director. He helped bring the Phorm campaign to a successful conclusion by running an “opt out” campaign that let major companies signal that they would not allow their communications with their customers to be examined. ORG also met with the EU Commission, which in 2009 launched legal proceedings against the UK over Phorm, asking the UK to ensure that users' private data would not be used without their clear consent. Working together with Privacy International and No2ID, ORG helped stop the 2008-2009 proposals to introduce UK-wide interception, gathering and storing of personal communications traffic data. ORG will resume campaigning in this area now that the coalition government has admitted it intends to revive these plans.
In 2010 we faced our biggest challenge to date, as Peter Mandelson pushed through the Digital Economy Act to allow the government to censor websites, rewrite copyright law by edict, and cut off families from the internet after receiving accusations of copyright infringement.
We mounted a massive campaign, alongside 38 Degrees, Liberty, and others. By its end, the Act was shown to be a disaster, the evidence was discredited, and the industry's lobbying exposed as corrupt and dishonest. Repeal of the Act was the most popular demand from people asking questions to the party leaders on Youtube and Facebook. Although the Act is still law, in a sign of things to come, the digital native generation showed that it had found its voice.
In 2010 we also ran our first ORGCon, which brought James Boyle to the UK alongside other world-reknown speakers. Our conference is fast becoming an internationally important digital rights event.
Since 2010, ORG's work areas have expanded to include open data policy, archives, and digitisation, as well as additional efforts on censorship and digital privacy. We are helping to lead a movement for copyright reform that might win significant battles.