Last week, we celebrated the 29th Annual—and first ever online—Pioneer Award Ceremony, which EFF convenes for our digital heroes and the folks that help make the online world a better, safer, stronger, and more fun place. Like the many Pioneer Award Ceremonies before it, the all-online event was both an intimate party with friends, and a reminder of the critical digital rights work that’s being done by so many groups and individuals, some of whom are not as well-known as they should be.    

Perhaps it was a feature of the pandemic — not a bug — that anyone could attend this year’s celebration, and anyone can now watch it online. You can also read the full transcript. More than ever before, this year’s Pioneer Award Ceremony was a celebration of online communities— specifically, the Open Technology Fund community working to create better tech globally; the community of Black activists pushing for racial justice in how technology works and is used; and the sex worker community that’s building digital tools to protect one another, both online and offline. 

But it was, after all, a celebration. So we kicked off the night by just vibing to DJ Redstickman, who brought his characteristic mix of fun, funky music, as well as some virtual visuals. 

 opening the Pioneer Award Ceremony

DJ Redstickman

EFF’s Executive Director, Cindy Cohn, began her opening remarks with a reminder that this is EFF’s 30th year, and though we’ve been at it a long time, we’ve never been busier: 

EFF Director Cindy Cohn welcoming viewers to the Pioneer Award Ceremony.

EFF Executive Director Cindy Cohn

We’re busy in the courts -- including a new lawsuit last week against the City of San Francisco for allowing the cops to spy on Black Lives Matter protesters and the Pride Parade in violation of an ordinance that we helped pass. We’re busy building technologies - including continuing our role in encrypting the web. We’re busy in the California legislature -- continuing to push for Broadband for All, which is so desperately needed for the millions of Californians now required to work and go to school from home. We’re busy across the nation and around the world standing up for your right to have a private conversation using encryption and for your right to build interoperable tools. And we’re blogging, tweeting and posting on all sorts of social media to keeping you aware of what’s going on and hopefully, occasionally amused.   

Cindy was followed by our keynote speaker, longtime friend of EFF, author, and one of the top reporters researching all things tech, Cyrus Farivar. Cyrus’s recent book, Habeus Data, covers 50 years of surveillance law in America, and his previous book The Internet of Elsewhere, focuses on the history and effects of the Internet on different countries around the world. 

Keynote speaker, Cyrus Farivar

Cyrus detailed his journey to becoming a tech reporter, from his time on IRC chats in his teenage years to his realization, in Germany in 2010, about “what it means to be private and what it means to have surveillance.” At the time, German politicians were concerned with the privacy implications of Google Streetview. In Germany, Cyrus explained, specifically in every German state, there is a data protection agency: “In a way, I kind of think about EFF as one of the best next things.  We don't really have a data protection agency or authority in this country.  Sure, we have the FCC.  We have other government agencies that are responsible for taking care of us, but we don't have something like that.  I feel like one of the things the EFF does probably better than most other organizations is really try to figure out what makes sense in this new reality.”

Cyrus, of course, is one of the many people helping us all make sense of this new reality, through his reporting—and we’re glad that he’s been fighting the good fight ever since encountering EFF during the Blue Ribbon Campaign. 

Following Cyrus was EFF Staff Technologist Daly Barnett, who introduced the winner of the first Barlow—Ms. Danielle Blunt, aka Mistress Blunt. Danielle Blunt is a sex worker activist and tech policy researcher, and is one of the co-founders of Hacking//Hustling, a collective of sex workers and accomplices working at the intersection of tech and social justice. Her research into sex work and equitable access to technology from a public health perspective has led her to being one of the primary experts on the impacts of the censorship law FOSTA-SESTA, and on how content moderation affects the movement work of sex workers and activists. As Daly said during her introduction, “there are few people on this planet that are as well equipped to subvert the toxic power dynamic that big tech imposes on many of us. Mistress Blunt can look at a system like that, pinpoint the weak spots, and leverage the right tools to exploit them.”

Pioneer Award Winner, Danielle Blunt

Mistress Blunt showcased and highlighted specifically how Hacking//Hustling bridges the gaps between sex worker rights, tech policy, and academia, and pointed out the ways in which sex workers, who are often early adopters, are also exploited by tech companies:

Sex workers were some of the earliest adopters of the web.  Sex workers were some of the first to use ecommerce platforms and the first to have personal websites. The rapid growth of countless tech platforms was reliant on the early adoption of sex workers...  [but ]Not all sex workers have equitable access to technologies or the Internet. This means that digital freedom for sex workers means equitable access to technologies. It means cultivating a deeper understanding of how technology is deployed to surveil and restrict movement of sex workers and how this impacts all of us, because it does impact all of us.  

After Mistress Blunt’s speech, EFF Director of International Freedom of Expression Jillian York joined us from Germany to introduce the next honoree, Laura Cunningham. Laura accepted the award for the Open Technology Fund community, a group which has fostered a global community and provided support—both monetary and in-kind—to more than 400 projects that seek to combat censorship and repressive surveillance. This has resulted in over 2 billion people in over 60 countries being able to access the open Internet more safely.

Unfortunately, new leadership has recently been appointed by the Trump administration to run OTF’s funder, the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM). As a result, there is a chance that the organization's funds could be frozen—threatening to leave many well-established global freedom tools, their users, and their developers in the lurch. As a result, this award was offered to the entire OTF community for their hard work and dedication to global Internet freedom—and because EFF recognizes the need to protect this community and ensure its survival despite the current political attacks. As Laura said in accepting it, the award “recognizes the impact and success of the entire OTF community,” and is “a poignant reminder of what a committed group of passionate individuals can accomplish when they unite around a common goal.”

Laura Cunningham accepted the Barlow on behalf of the Open Technology Fund Community

But because OTF is a community, Laura didn’t accept the award alone. A pre-recorded video montage of OTF community members gave voice to this principle as they described what the community means to them: 

For me, the OTF community is resourceful.  I've never met a community that does so much with so little considering how important their work is for activists and journalists across the world to fight surveillance and censorship.

I love OTF because apart from providing open-source technology to marginalized communities, I have found my sisters in struggle and solidarity in this place for a woman of color and find my community within the OTF community.  Being part of the OTF community means I'm not alone in the fight against injustice, inequality, against surveillance and censorship.  

Members of the OTF Community spoke about what it means to them

For me, the OTF community plays an important role in the work that I do because it allows me to be in a space where I see people from different countries around the world working towards a common goal of Internet freedom.  

I'm going to tell you a story about villagers in Vietnam.  The year is 2020.  An 84-year-old elder of a village shot dead by police while defending his and the villagers' land.  His two sons sentenced to death.  His grandson sentenced to life in prison.  That was the story of three generations of family in a rural area of the Vietnam.  It was the online world that brought the stories to tens of millions of Vietnamese and prompted a series of online actions.  Thanks to our fight against internet censorship, Vietnamese have access to information.  

We are one community fighting together for Internet freedom, a precondition today to enjoy fundamental rights.  

These are just a few highlights. We hope you’ll watch the video to see exactly why OTF is so important, and so appreciated globally. 

Following this stunning video, EFF’s Director of Community Organizing, Nathan Sheard, introduced the final award winners—Joy Buolamwini, Dr. Timnit Gebru, and Deborah Raji.

Pioneer Award Winners Joy Buolamwini, Dr. Timnit Gebru, and Deborah Raji

The trio have done groundbreaking research on race and gender bias in facial analysis technology, which laid the groundwork for the national movement to ban law enforcement’s use face surveillance in American cities. In accepting the award, each honoree spoke, beginning with Deborah Raji, who detailed some of the dangers of face recognition that their work together on the Gender Shades Project helped uncover: “Technology requiring the privacy violation of numerous individuals doesn't work. Technology hijacked to be weaponized and target and harass vulnerable communities doesn't work. Technology that fails to live up to its claims to some subgroups over other subgroups certainly doesn't work at all.”

Following Deborah, Dr. Timnit Gebru described how this group came together, beginning with Joy founding the Algorithmic Justice League, Deb founding Project Include, and her own co-founding of Black in AI. Importantly, Timnit noted how these three—and their organizations—look out for each other: “Joy actually got this award and she wanted to share it with us. All of us want to see each other rise, and all of the organizations we've founded—we try to have all these organizations support each other.” 

Lastly, Joy Buolamwini closed off the acceptance with a performance—a “switch from performance metrics to performance art.” Joy worked with Brooklyn tenants who were organizing against compelled use of face recognition in their building, and her poem was an ode to them—and to everyone “resisting and revealing the lie that we must accept the surrender of our faces.” The poem is here in full: 

To the Brooklyn tenants resisting and revealing the lie that we must accept the surrender of our faces, the harvesting of our data, the plunder of our traces, we celebrate your courage. No silence.  No consent. You show the path to algorithmic justice requires a league, a sisterhood, a neighborhood, hallway gathering, Sharpies and posters, coalitions, petitions, testimonies, letters, research, and potlucks, livestreams and twitches, dancing and music. Everyone playing a role to orchestrate change. To the Brooklyn tenants and freedom fighters around the world and the EFF family going strong, persisting and prevailing against algorithms of oppression, automating inequality through weapons of math destruction, we stand with you in gratitude. You demonstrate the people have a voice and a choice.  When defiant melodies harmonize to elevate human life, dignity, and rights, the victory is ours.  

Joy Buolamwini, aka Poet of Code

There is really no easy way to summarize such a celebration as the Pioneer Award Ceremony—especially one that brought together this diverse set of communities to show, again and again, how connected we all are, and must be, to fight back against oppression. As Cindy said, in closing: 

We all know no big change happens because of a single person and how important the bonds of community can be when we're up against such great odds…The Internet can give us the tools, and it can help us create others to allow us to connect and fight for a better world, but really what it takes is us.  It takes us joining together and exerting our will and our intelligence and our grit to make it happen. But when we get it right, EFF, I hope, can help lead those fights, but also we can help support others who are leading them and always, always help light the way to a better future.  

EFF would like to thank the members around the world who make the Pioneer Award Ceremony and all of EFF's work possible. You can help us work toward a digital world that supports freedom, justice, and innovation for all people by donating to EFF. We know that these are deeply dangerous times, and with your support, we will stand together no matter how dark it gets and we will still be here to usher in a brighter day. 

Thanks again to Dropbox, No Starch Press, Ridder Costa & Johnstone LLP, and Ron Reed for supporting this year’s ceremony! If you or your company are interested in learning more about sponsorship, please contact Nicole Puller.