Each year, EFF's Pioneer Awards ceremony gives the digital civil liberties community a chance to honor the work of those who have bettered our world through remarkable innovation, activism, journalism, or leadership. This year, we were proud to celebrate the lives and work of James Love, Aaron Swartz, and Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, and to hear an extraordinary keynote address from Professor Lawrence Lessig, as well as remarks from Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman.
Amidst the grave challenges faced by our friends and fellow travelers, the Pioneer Awards ceremony often grants a unique moment for celebrating the genuine joy of fighting for what's right. But this year's event also invoked tense and challenging emotions that underscored the urgency of our times.
(An audio recording of the event is available at the Internet Archive.)
I dream of a time when simple acts of citizenship aren't called brave, where to have the courage to be a citizen doesn't make you a pioneer; when we have a political system where the right is on at least one side, where right is on both sides; where we, organizations like [EFF], can get back to the luxury of tiny fights. I mean, they [were] big fights, but they [were] big fights over tiny issues, at least against the background of the issues that we face now. I remember the old days, when we could worry about neutral networks or whether culture could get remixed or whether Mickey Mouse should be set free. Remember those days? I dream of a time when we can get away from this time, when we have to fight monopolists to get their drugs to people who need them, to fight governments for the right to criticize, we have to fight the hopelessness that leads one to take his life. We celebrate these pioneers, these citizens, Jamie and Glenn and Laura and the sweet soul who was Aaron. Their work is not done, but it's simple work, it's the work of citizens. It will never be done, but let us continue it.
Professor Lessig’s emotional, inspirational keynote (video here) highlighted a thematic discomfort with the fact that the winners' good, common-sense work—fighting unquestioned monopolies, sharing knowledge, and revealing governments’ vast misuse of power—has demanded remarkable levels of tenacity, bravery, and personal sacrifice. His reminder that everyone has the capacity and responsibilty to contribute towards a better future—expressed simply as citizenship—was keenly felt throughout the audience.
Professor Lessig and Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman also shared remarks on Aaron Swartz that reminded us all of his passion and brilliance—feelings inherently accompanied by a profound sense of loss, and even failure.
It's a strange thing to be here, accepting this award on Aaron's behalf and not knowing how he would have felt about it. I can't tell you what Aaron would've thought of being named an EFF pioneer, keeping the company of people like Jamie and Glenn and Laura, of sharing New York Times column inches or the front page of Time magazine with Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. I'd love to say that he would've been thrilled. I think certainly, a part of him would have been. I think he might have been embarrassed too. And I think he would've felt that this was premature, that his best work wasn't yet done. I think we would all agree.
Both Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras shared meditations on the loneliness and fear of being U.S. citizens and truthtellers in a time so deeply hostile to journalists.
But the Pioneer Award speakers also spoke openly of the values and victories that transcended the hardships. Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman mused on Aaron's continuing presence in everything from the tools we use, to the growing open access movement among librarians and academics, to the fight for a free and open internet. James Love shared the story of the 10-year struggle for an essential treaty—a worldwide agreement to give the visually impaired access to reading material and reading technology.
You go into the bathroom and you see a blind person trying to find a urinal, or to wash his hands, or you watch people trying to cross the street when they're blind, in a town that they don't live in—and it's heart-breaking. [Treaty negotiators] would watch people struggling to read basic things and listening to them trying to use the different technologies they have, the hardest-hearted people in the negotiation became less hard-hearted every day, every minute, every hour they spent really with these people. So some of the rightsholders kind of dialed it back a notch, they kind of mailed it in, and really didn't it give their A-level lobbying effort. And many people just became committed to a solution, they really wanted it to happen. I had lobbyists talk to me say things like, "Well, yeah, I'm a lobbyist for the film industry, but I'm also a human being."
Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras discussed the integrity of Aaron Swartz, James Risen, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Thomas Drake, William Binney, Daniel Ellsberg, and other whistleblowers who took risks in order to bring transparency and accountability to the government, and thanked the community for supporting their efforts.
It's a long and depressing list [of targeted journalists and whistleblowers] in one sense... And yet, on the other hand, there's an encouraging irony to that list, namely that the list is as long as it is and it's continuously getting longer. In other words, I think there's lots of tactics that the government uses to try and, as Laura said, intimidate and chill and deter people from meaningfully challenging it. And in a lot of cases it does work, but in increasingly large numbers of cases, it doesn't work. I think what's actually happening is it's backfiring. The more people see how abusive the government is, the more emboldened they get and inspired they become to realize that the government needs real accountability an transparency.
We're also happy to report that the event was a delightful party. We’re grateful for the generous support of Automattic, Facebook, JunkEmailFilter.com, SaurikIT, JibJab, and Pinterest, who made the event possible. Donations of beverages from Periscope Cellars, Ninkasi Brewing Company, Peak Organic Brewing Company, and Matagrano Inc. were also deeply appreciated by our guests.
In sum, the 2013 Pioneer Awards ceremony was distinctly humbling and inspiring. We are grateful to the award winners, to the special guests who joined us at the ceremony, and to the many well-wishers and supporters who joined us in spirit. Thank you for supporting digital civil liberties, and see you next year!