July 25, 2005 | By Wendy Seltzer

EFF15: The View From a Windowless Office

My digital liberties "click moment" is less a moment than a place -- a windowless basement office, to be precise. The office was home to the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, a research center at Harvard Law School, when I was a student. I had found the recently established Berkman Center through their advertisement for a webmaster and sysadmin. I thought that running a webserver under my desk qualified me for the post, and, in a sign of the times, they did too.

The Berkman Center was founded on a commitment to openness: open code, open law, open access, open education, open governance. Berkman founders and faculty -- Charlie Nesson, Jonathan Zittrain, Lawrence Lessig, and Terry Fisher -- understood that the magic of the Internet was not what it was now, but what its users could build upon it. They infused the Center's research with that build-it spirit, and quickly made me more than just a webmaster/sysadmin, but a full participant in the construction. If the tools we needed didn't exist, we'd create them, test them in real-time, and deploy -- whether it was classroom discussion software (now h2o), online teaching, or open-source law.

(more after the jump)

That windowless office gave me an expansive view of an Internet to which almost anyone could connect, create, and combine. Not everything succeeded, but lots did, often in ways a central planner couldn't have anticipated. Classroom assignments became conversations, among the class and the outside world; webcasts opened conferences to distant participants; new copyright licenses helped artists invite remixing of their works. We didn't just ask what technologists and lawyers could learn from one another, we built a forum to discuss how our respective codes are made. Through the Net, we could share our experiments.

Yet even then, and especially once I'd graduated from law school, I could see that not everyone saw the virtues of the open Internet in the same way. Open code threatens proprietary platforms; open access threatens business models built on exclusivity; open content challenges those who thrive on enclosure. Under these forces, the malleable code of the Internet could easily be changed to resist openness and to thwart tinkering and building-upon.

I left law school determined that others should have the creative tools to experience the open Net as I had from the Berkman Center's basement office. EFF was just the place, out in the forefront persuading courts, regulators, legislators, lawyers, and technologists to leave room for user innovation. I've had the privilege at EFF to work to ward off restrictive technology mandates; help the public resist the chilling effects of unfounded legal threats (and understand meritorious legal claims); fought off copyright as censorship; and argued for online anonymity.

As I move back to New York to start as a visiting professor at Brooklyn Law School, I hope I can imbue students with a similar sense of adventure, on a Net that's still open to it.


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