2020 in Review
“Now more than ever,” “in these uncertain times,” “unprecedented”—we’re sure you have seen these words repeated over and over in the last twelve months, including from us here at EFF. They are clichés because they are true. 2020 has been the year that lasted a whole decade.
It almost seems appropriate that EFF turned 30 this year, a year of extreme highs and lows. A year where being able to get and stay online became vital to everyday life. A year where people took the streets in protest and in celebration – and where mass surveillance often tracked them at both.
We are grateful to our over 37,000 members at last count, who allowed us to fight for digital rights this year and the last 29. We always feel the importance of our work, but we took on new challenges this year under very difficult circumstances. And it was you, our supporters, who helped us rise to meet them. Our goal this birthday year is to welcome 30,000 new or renewing members before July, and you have helped us get over halfway there so far.
We began the year with a fight that ended in a major victory: saving .ORG from falling into the hands of private equity. At the end of 2019, The Internet Society (ISOC) announced that it intended to sell the Public Interest Registry (PIR, the organization that oversees the .ORG domain name registry) to a private equity firm. Eventually, petitions to reject the sale received over 64,000 signatures, and nearly 900 organizations signed on. Joining them in their concerns were Members of Congress, UN Special Rapporteurs, and state charity regulators. This culminated in an April decision by ICANN to disapprove the sale of .ORG, representing a win for the public interest Internet.
Early in 2020, we also worked tirelessly to protect free speech, security, and privacy online. First, we renewed our effort to overturn the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, known as FOSTA. While the law FOSTA was intended to fight the genuine problem of sex trafficking, the way the law is written achieves the opposite effect: it makes it harder for law enforcement to actually locate victims, and it punishes organizations and individuals doing important work. In the process, it does irreparable harm to the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. Second, we led the charge against EARN IT, a bill which, like FOSTA before it, was aimed at a real problem—this time, online child exploitation. And like FOSTA, the bill as written would seriously undermine speech, security, and innovation online. In 2020, EARN IT became the latest front in the ongoing war against encryption that certain parts of the U.S. government have been waging for decades. We will stand against it now, and continue to stand up for your security, just as we have in the past.
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic soon took over our lives, same as everyone else’s. Like many, we navigated working, learning, and everything-elsing from home. We rapidly figured out that the COVID-19 crisis would bring many hasty, ill-thought-out proposals regarding technology, and seek to “COVID-wash” others, and brought to bear our 30 years of experience and knowledge. We opposed technological surveillance of the populace purportedly in service of “fighting” the pandemic. We opposed plans that claimed that some form of app would work in place of testing and interview-based contact tracing. And we opposed sharing anyone’s health data with police departments. We opposed “bossware” that snoops on every mouse click in our home offices and proctoring apps that improperly surveil students who must take exams at home.
On the other side, we supported plans that would get faster, cheaper, more reliable Internet access to as many Americans as possible. Internet usage like we’re seeing this year is only going to become more common, not less, and so everyone—rural, urban, low-income, BIPOC—needs access to high-quality Internet. We supported open-access to scientific information and research into the virus. We supported tinkerers having the right to fix broken medical devices and easy online access to repair manuals for such devices.
2020 also made clear that longstanding EFF concerns, such as law enforcement surveillance and the ability to livestream encounters with the police, are part and parcel of a long-needed reckoning with racial injustice. As we said this summer: Black lives matter on the streets. Black lives matter on the Internet. EFF stands with the communities mourning the victims of police homicide. We stand with the protesters who are plowed down by patrol cars. We stand with the journalists placed in handcuffs or fired upon while reporting these atrocities. And we stand with all those using their cameras, phones, and digital tools to make sure we cannot turn away from the truth.
As protestors took to the streets, EFF opened up our legal referral program to people facing legal troubles as a result of their participation in the Black-led demonstrations, especially where those involved surveillance or device searches. We also discovered surveillance of protestors in our own backyard. According to records we obtained, San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) conducted mass surveillance of protesters at the end of May and in early June using a downtown business district’s camera network. We, with the ACLU, are representing plaintiffs in a suit against the city and county over SFPD’s unlawful use of these cameras.
It has been a long year. We also launched a podcast, introduced a new way for users to find and block trackers online, shined a light on Amazon Ring’s relationships with local law enforcement, encouraged European lawmakers to remember that the Internet is more than just the tech giants, and found ourselves defending fair use in the omegaverse. Please consider joining EFF. 2020 gave us new fights to fight, in addition to throwing into stark relief why fighting our old ones is so important. We cannot do this without our supporters.
EFF has an annual tradition of writing several blog posts on what we’ve accomplished this year, what we’ve learned, and where we have more to do. This year’s blog posts seem even wider-ranging than usual, since 2020 resisted all attempts at being about only one, five, or even a hundred things. We will update this page with new stories about digital rights in 2020 every day between now and New Year’s Day.
2020 in Review Articles:
- How We Saved .ORG
- COVID-19 and Surveillance Tech
- How COVID Changed Content Moderation
- High Tech Police Surveillance of Protests and Activism
- EU and the Digital Services Act
- The U.S. Internet Is Being Starved of Its Potential
- Surveillance Self-Defense and Security Education
- What Comes Next for the Santa Clara Principles
- In 2020, Congress Threatened Our Speech and Security With the “EARN IT” Act
- EFF Members Rise Up
- Section 215 Expired: Year in Review 2020
- Student Privacy and the Fight to Keep Spying Out of Schools: Year in Review 2020