Little more than two years ago, what is now the Open Rights Group (ORG) was just an idea in the heads of half-a-dozen individuals. It was, however, an idea whose time had come, as evidenced by the fact that today ORG is an influential and vibrant organisation, responding to a wide array of government consultations, driving forward high-profile projects and featuring in the address books of dozens of journalists. How have we got here and why has this happened?
In recent years, many citizens have become concerned about the impact of digital technologies on their civil liberties. We have seen increasing encroachment of public and private sector organisations into the private lives of individuals, frequently facilitated by technology. Government often views technology and data as ‘the solution’ to political, social and economic questions that are invariably ill-formulated and under-analysed. The results are too frequently more surveillance, less privacy and inappropriate use of technology.
Further, digital technologies are affecting citizens’ ability to exercise their existing legal rights effectively, as some segments of the private sector have increasingly looked to government to extend their rights in an effort to prop up outdated business models. And digital technologies may also generate new possibilities for public (non personal) data, though the UK government has tended to corral public sector information, limiting its exploitation and thus creative and economic opportunities.
For too long, there has been little informed public debate in the UK about any of these issues. Media coverage and policy-making has largely been driven by agendas set in Whitehall and corporate board rooms and there was no organisation in the UK defending citizens’ digital rights.
The question of why such an organisation did not exist was raised at a conference at Imperial College in 2005. Within hours, a public pledge was established on Pledgebank to cooperate in the founding and funding of such an organisation.
Within days, a community of people had begun to wrangle with such issues as how it should be structured, what legal formation it should have, what its statutes should look like and how it should operate. Not forgetting the all-important and much-discussed ‘What shall we call it?’. Within weeks of the pledge maturing, money from supporters was being credited to a newly opened bank account.
Even as the organisation was forming, it was already responding to a government consultation on digital rights management. And from the beginning ORG was able to draw on a wide array of acknowledged experts in their fields, on topics ranging from intellectual property law to computer security. Before long, journalists were regularly seeking out the ORG view on digital questions of the day and ORG was contributing to a wide array of consultations.
ORG has travelled a considerable distance since those early days, as confidence and ambition increased. ORG reached its stride with its 2006 Release the Music campaign against further extension of copyright in sound recordings. While recording industry representatives wheeled out wealthy pensioner Cliff Richard – and several dead musicians – in their support, ORG better captured the public mood on this topic, and its evidence-based approach won the day in influencing government policy.
Even more ambitious was ORG’s subsequent work on e-voting, where we took advantage of recent electoral legislation to involve volunteers as official observers at elections implementing e-voting and e-counting across the UK. This project generated a wealth of new data to inform the electoral modernisation debate.
What started out as a feeling and an idea in 2005 has today become an inclusive, effective and well-governed organisation that punches well above its weight – ORG only appointed its first full-time Executive Director in 2007. ORG’s able staff of two are supported in their work by an Advisory Council that helps shape the policy agenda and a Board focused on efficient use of resources, good governance and sustainability.
But just as importantly, ORG benefits from all manner of support from the many people involved in this grassroots organisation. From the individuals who support us financially or in kind, to the scores of people who keep our lively email list buzzing and those who generously volunteer their time and expertise, there are hundreds of people who contribute to ORG’s success. Our supporters and volunteers, who come from right across the political spectrum, drive our organisation, informing debates on a wide range of issues and providing amazing energy for projects and campaigns.
Since our inception, we have been fortunate to receive financial support not only from supporters but also from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd. We are excited to have recently been awarded further funding to develop our information infrastructure, build our community and develop our communications strategy.
Looking ahead, ORG aims to be a positive force in the world of digital rights and we are ambitious to spread our net wider: to address the ever widening array of digital rights issues currently facing British society, to expand our education activities and to engage with those not currently aware of our work.
I hope you enjoy reading about our past work and future plans. Louise Ferguson Chair, Open Rights Group