EFF’s annual Pioneer Awards Ceremony recognizes extraordinary individuals for their commitment and leadership in extending freedom and innovation on the electronic frontier. At this year’s event held on September 27 in San Francisco, EFF rededicated the Pioneer Awards to EFF co-founder and Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. Barlow’s commitment to online freedom was commemorated by dubbing the Pioneer Awards statuette the “Barlow.” EFF welcomed keynote speaker Daniel Ellsberg, known for his work in releasing the Pentagon papers, to help award the very first Barlows. This year's honorees were fair use champion Stephanie Lenz, European Digital Rights leader Joe McNamee, and groundbreaking content moderation researcher Sarah T. Roberts.
The evening kicked off with EFF Executive Director Cindy Cohn who had the honor of renaming the Pioneer Award as the “Barlow” to pay tribute to Barlow’s work creating EFF and his role in establishing the movement for Internet freedom. “Barlow was one of the first people to see the potential of the Internet as a place of freedom where voices long silenced could find an audience and people could connect, regardless of physical distance,” Cohn said. (If you’re an award winner and reading this, you’ll be happy to know she also gave the green light to previous award winners to retroactively call their awards the Barlow.)
Cohn introduced two of his daughters, Anna and Amelia Barlow (known affectionately as the Barlowettes), to the stage to share some words. Anna paid tribute to her father’s talents and his ability to weave two worlds together, and shared a video of him speaking about the necessity of the physical world to provide a framework for love, illustrating his theory of life.
Amelia centered on gratitude sharing funny anecdotes on her father’s ancestral connections to early America. She emphasized the important of perceptivity, respect, and wisdom needed in the information era in carrying her father’s legacy forward, and in an emotional moment told the room, “I really feel like those people are you.” She continued, “Maybe we all will be guided by the wisdom of those who have come before us and not forget what is true as a means of seeking a beautiful future with the long view, the long game, and all beings in mind.”
Cohn introduced Daniel Ellsberg, Barlow’s friend and board member of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon papers in 1971 exposed U.S. criminality in Vietnam at great personal risk to himself, and he has since tirelessly supported whistleblowers and worked to shed light on government surveillance. Cohn highlighted Ellsberg’s understanding of how national security can affect the psyche of a government official as secrecy becomes more than a job, but an identity. This makes it even more difficult for whistleblowers to step forward. “I can honestly say that without you as a role model for breaking out of the secrecy cult, the NSA's mass surveillance programs would still likely be a secret to this day,” she said as she thanked him for his service.
Ellsberg took the stage to a standing ovation, and shared his impressions of the Supreme Court hearings. “I believed Anita Hill then. I believe Christine Blasey Ford now,” he said. He told the story of how he first met Barlow and Barlow called him a “revelationary,” a term, he mused humorously, that was “a lot better than ‘whistleblower.’”
A high point was hearing Ellsberg call the Pioneer Awards the most exciting day of his life, as he was finally able to meet Chelsea Manning, who was in attendance that evening. He joked he had missed her many times, once seeing the back of her head. “But I waited 39 years for her to appear in this world,” he said before continuing on to detail the significance of the documents she leaked. He went on the praise both Manning and Edward Snowden, “I have often said that I identify more with them as revelationaries than with any other people in the world.”
"Here's the great thing about the choice to become an advocate: anyone can make it.”
EFF Legal Director Corynne McSherry introduced honoree Stephanie Lenz. Lenz became a fair use hero when, with the assistance of EFF, she sued Universal Studios for sending her a takedown notice (taking advantage of the Digital Millennial Copyright Act) for a 29-second YouTube video of her kids dancing to Prince’s song “Let’s Go Crazy,” even though her video was legitimate fair use. The fight has taken ten years to win, but Lenz never gave up. “Stephanie Lenz is not most people. She decided to take another course. She decided to fight back,” said McSherry. In doing so, Lenz became a voice for thousands of users who have had their work taken down unfairly – and she made history. Lenz encouraged the audience to all become activists, “I could've chosen silence. I chose speech. Here's the great thing about the choice to become an advocate: anyone can make it.”
Danny O’Brien introduced the next honoree, Joe McNamee, and humorously praised his humility, stating that McNamee only agreed to accept the award if he could do so on behalf of his colleagues. True to his word, O’Brien presented the award to McNamee and the European community. “Anyone know who that guy is?” quipped McNamee.
McNamee is Executive Director of European Digital Rights, Europe’s association for organizations supporting online freedom. From his home base of Brussels, he pioneered digital rights advocacy in Europe with his work in net neutrality and General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR, and notably, was a centralizing force for diverse groups from politicians to activists to come together. McNamee shared his concern for the copyright directive and the problems that arise from companies implementing policies on a global level. He also asked the audience to go home and watch the video of Taren Stinebricker-Kauffman speaking on the banality of evil during her acceptance speech for Aaron Swartz’s posthumous Pioneer Award, “And when you watch that video, be outraged that it's truer today than it was a few years ago. Be proud that you're part of a community that does not accept this banality. And be energized by your outrage to fight the good fight.”
EFF Director of International Free Expression Jillian York presented the evening's last award over live video from Thessaloniki in Greece to Sarah T. Roberts, who was in Greece keynoting a conference on content moderation. Roberts spoke of the hidden labor and the experiences of the workers in content moderation – which is largely invisible – and hoped the award would help “elevate the profile and elevate the experience to these workers that have been hidden for so long.” Roberts’ research on content moderation has been vital in documenting and informing how social media companies use low-wage laborers to the detriment of free expression and the health and well-being of the screeners.
We are deeply grateful to Anna Barlow, Amelia Barlow, Daniel Ellsberg, and all of this year’s honorees for their contributions in the digital world and far beyond. This was truly an ideal group to rededicate the Pioneer Awards Ceremony to a visionary like John Perry Barlow.
Awarded every year since 1992, EFF’s Pioneer Awards Ceremony recognizes the leaders who are extending freedom and innovation on the electronic frontier. Honorees are nominated by the public. Previous honorees have included Aaron Swartz, Douglas Engelbart, Richard Stallman, and Anita Borg. Many thanks to the sponsors of the 2018 Pioneer Awards Ceremony: Airbnb, Anonyome Labs; Dropbox; Gandi.net; Ridder, Costa & Johnstone LLP; and Ron Reed. If you or your company are interested in learning more about sponsorship, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.