It is with heavy hearts that we mourn and celebrate our friend and colleague Elliot Harmon, who passed away peacefully on Saturday morning following a lengthy battle with melanoma. We will deeply miss Elliot’s clever mind, powerful pen, generous heart, and expansive kindness. We will carry his memory with us in our work.
Elliot understood how intellectual property could be misused to shut down curiosity, silence artists, and inhibit research—and how open access policies, open licensing, and a more nuanced and balanced interpretation of copyright could reverse those trends. A committed copyleft activist, he led campaigns against patent trolls and fought for open access to research. He campaigned globally for freedom of expression and access to knowledge, and his powerful articles helped define many of these issues for a global community of digital rights activists.
Elliot’s formidable activism touched upon every aspect of EFF’s work. In his early days with us, he continued the work that he began at Creative Commons campaigning for the late Palestinian-Syrian activist, technologist, and internet volunteer Bassel Khartabil. He also ran a successful campaign for Colombian student Diego Gomez, fighting against that country’s steep copyright infringement laws and advocating for open access and academic freedom. Following the same values, Elliot spearheaded EFF’s Reclaim Invention campaign urging universities to protect their inventions from patent trolls. He went on to help steer our campaign to get the FCC to restore net neutrality rules, framing the issue as a matter of free speech and calling on “Team Internet” to join him in the fight. In all of these efforts and more, Elliot brought a natural sense of how to build and nurture community around a shared cause.
Elliot was also a leading advocate for free expression online, and helped educate the public on how laws policing online speech or ratcheting up the liability of online platforms could have serious consequences for marginalized communities. In 2018, when SESTA-FOSTA came to the legislative table and it looked as though many organizations feared standing up for sex workers, Elliot made sure we weren’t one of them, and directed his and EFF’s energy to fiercely advocating for their rights online. Elliot’s op-ed in the New York Times still stands as a crucial and powerful explanation of how Section 230 enables millions of the voiceless to have a voice. As he wrote: “History shows that when platforms clamp down on their users’ speech, the people most excluded are the ones most excluded from other aspects of public life, too.”
More recently, Elliot coordinated a global effort to prevent a private equity firm from purchasing the .ORG domain, rallying the troops for what was undoubtedly one of the most dramatic shows of non-profit sector solidarity of all time, to use his own words. His sense of humor and humility are on full display in this Deeplinks post about the campaign.
But Elliot’s deepest digital rights commitment may have been his belief in open access to knowledge and culture—and he knew how to write about that belief as an invitation, not a command. To give just one of many examples, this post helped draw attention to the removal of a tool used by journalists and activists to save eyewitness videos.
In an organization filled with tireless advocates, Elliot’s thoughtfulness, quick wit, and wide-ranging interests—along with his loud and buoyant laugh, sparked easily by the team members he worked alongside for three years then led for nearly three more—set him apart. We knew a meeting or planning session was going well when we could hear Elliot’s laughter from across the office. And an edit by Elliot on a blog post or call to action was sure to make it smarter, sharper, and more persuasive.
Elliot joined EFF in 2015 from Creative Commons, where he had served in the role of Director of Communications—a role in which many EFF staffers first encountered him. It was not, however, his first introduction to EFF; he planted an easter egg in his cover letter applying for a role on the activism team encouraging us to search for the old Geocities website he launched as a teenager, where one would come across EFF’s Blue Ribbon Campaign sticker. He was a lifelong supporter and a true believer in equal digital rights for all, and he always took great care to look for the underdog.
In 2018, Elliot took over the role of Activism Director from Rainey Reitman and built up a powerful team with the delicate strength required of one stepping into the shoes of a long-serving team leader. He excelled in the position, bringing joy, structure, and quirky “funtivities” to his team during a particularly difficult time for the world and the internet. His careful leadership style, constant awareness of his team members’ needs, and conviction that our work can change the world will continue to serve as an inspiration.
Elliot also served as a member of EFF’s senior leadership team. He was a powerful and thoughtful voice in helping us figure out how to remain scrappy and smart even as we put into place management and other structures appropriate for our now-larger organization.
Of course, Elliot was not just a digital rights activist; he was a husband, a friend, a pro wrestling fan, an accomplished poet and performer, a Master of Fine Arts in Writing, a mentor to many, and a skilled and caring manager.
We will miss Elliot’s incredible talent and leadership, but more than that, we will miss his sincerity, his hearty laugh, and his extraordinary sense of fairness and kindness. And we will continue the fight and honor his dreams of a free and open internet.