EFF is pleased to welcome researcher Gennie Gebhart, the newest member of the activism team. Gennie will be working to defend your right to privacy and security online.
Gennie has a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Washington. She’s published research on Internet censorship, zero rating, and access to knowledge. While at UW, she co-founded the university’s Open Access Initiative.
I caught up with Gennie to ask her a few questions about her past work and what she’ll be bringing to EFF.
What are you most excited about working on here?
I’m excited to bring my social science research background into EFF’s advocacy work. With EFF behind it, that kind of research has the potential for broad readership and immediate impact—every researcher’s dream!
You've been a part of the open access movement for a long time. Why is open access important?
Open access is so important because closed access is so entrenched. We are up against hundreds of years of a publisher-centric, pay-to-play system that suddenly no longer makes sense when we transfer it from a primarily paper world to a primarily digital one. That tension between openness and restrictions is so interesting to me, both in open access and in other areas of digital rights work. As we make content and processes and information in general more and more open, it inevitably brings up more questions about where and how we need to think about privacy and security in new ways.
What role do librarians play in the digital rights movement?
Historically, I see libraries as the traditional institutional protector of privacy—that’s why I went into the field. For so many user groups—particularly homeless, youth, or unemployed communities that rely on public libraries—librarians are among the last lines of defense against surveillance. In that way, fighting for the user is at the core of librarianship, and it’s at the core of what I hope to do with EFF, too.
What did you learn from your research on Internet censorship in Thailand? What surprised you?
Our key insight was really a confirmation of a broader pattern in censorship work: you can’t address state censorship problems without also addressing freedom of expression and surveillance. Users don’t just need to access information safely—they also need to be able to use and create and engage with that information without fear of state interception or punishment. But the technology that we put under the “censorship circumvention” umbrella often stops at giving users technical access, and does not address the much more complicated problem of how to combat self-censorship and all the psychosocial tactics repressive states can use to stem the free flow of information.
A broader takeaway for me was that when it comes to censorship circumvention tools, there can be surprisingly little overlap between the problems computer science research is trying to solve and the problems that real users face on the ground. What users need—simple, easy-to-find, flexible tools—is not what the research community tends to promote—more complicated, technically novel, one-size-fits-all approaches.
What's your favorite t-shirt you own?
Without a doubt, the Open Access jolly roger.
Any funny CouchSurfing stories?
Too many to count. My favorite is from the first time I ever CouchSurfed. I was moving to Rome on Christmas Eve, and I wanted nothing more than to find a real Italian family Christmas dinner. I was pretty nervous about the prospect of staying with strangers from the Internet, so I just booked a hostel for myself and put out a request for someone to just host me for a meal. Through several twists and turns, though, I ended up driving three hours to Naples straight from the airport with then-Internet-stranger-now-friend Stefano, crashing not one but two Italian family Christmas dinners, and staying with Stefano and his friends for two weeks. Since then, I’ve jumped into CouchSurfing and never looked back.
I have “surfed” far more than I have “hosted” on CouchSurfing over the past few years, so now that I am getting settled in San Francisco I am hoping to host more and finally balance out my CouchSurfing karma.