EFF’s full page ad in Wired

This week, you can buy a copy of Wired Magazine’s January edition and see the EFF ad in it. It’s a full page letter to the tech community, urging them to safeguard user data now in light of incoming President Donald Trump’s positions on surveillance and censorship.

This ad was a big lift for me and others at EFF—from figuring out where we would place it, negotiating with Conde Nast’s marketing team, and then working internally with EFF’s legal and graphics team to finalize the ad. I’m really proud of the final version.

Check out the full campaign page.

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Text of the ad:

To the Technology Community:
Your threat model just changed.

Incoming President Donald Trump made campaign promises that, if carried out, threaten the free web and the rights of millions of people. He has praised attempts to undermine digital security, supported mass surveillance, and threatened net neutrality. He promised to identify and deport millions of your friends and neighbors, track people based on their religious beliefs, and suppress freedom of the press.

And he wants to use your servers to do it.

Today, we are calling on the technology community to unite with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in securing our networks against this threat.

Encrypt: Use HTTPS and end-to-end encryption for every user transaction, communication, and activity by default.

Delete: Scrub your logs. You cannot be made to surrender data you do not have.

Reveal: If you get a government request to monitor users or censor speech, tell the world.

Resist: Fight for user rights in court, on Capitol Hill, and beyond.

When you stand with users, we’ll stand with you. EFF has fought for the rights of technology creators and users for 26 years, through four different presidential administrations. As a nonpartisan nonprofit, we combine litigation, activism, and software development to defend civil liberties in the digital world.

The future of our democracy depends on an Internet that is free from censorship and government surveillance. Together we can ensure that technology created to connect and uplift people worldwide is not conscripted into a tool of oppression. Join us in defending users.

 

Small Kitchen, Small Budget

I moved into my tiny, perfect house in Oakland in August of 2015, and my partner and I have been slowly turning it into a real home. From replacing broken thermostats to installing an embedded cabinet over the bathroom sink, I personally think we’re doing a marvelous job at making our house nice without spending much money.

One of the biggest problems is that our kitchen is tiny.  And there isn’t much room for storage. We’ve been slowly adding shelves where we can, and wall-mounting things to save cabinet space.

Today I’m showing off what I consider to be a tiny masterpiece: a kitchen cart and wall-mounted lid organizer. Both fit into the small area between my backdoor and my countertop—space which we’d been wasting before.

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The kitchen cart was originally $60 from Ikea, but I found it cheaper on Craigslist. It’s actually easy to find cheap Ikea furniture on Craigslist—just figure out what you like at Ikea, then set up an alert whenever something with that name gets posted. With a name like “Bekvam,” it was easy to find this cart.

Then we grabbed some dark cherry wood stain, finishing oil, a tarp, some gloves, and a few cheap rags from the hardware store.

To stain furniture, you apply a very small amount of stain and then wipe it away. I used a small sponge. It can’t pool or drip, or it will look terrible. (I know, I ruined a dining room table once.)

Luckily, the unfinished microwave cart from Ikea didn’t need to be sanded much, so staining it was simple. (Here’s a basic intro to wood staining, if you haven’t done it before).

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I originally intended to go darker, but I fell in love with the dark golden pattern in the wood, so I stopped a few shades lighter than I originally intended.

 

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I only spent a few hours on staining, and then let it dry overnight. Then a little touch-up in the morning, some more drying, and then we ran a protective oil over the entire thing.  Two days later, we had a beautiful new kitchen cart.

The lid holder, unfortunately, was not as simple.

We bought this lid organizer off Amazon. Unlike the Ikea cart, it was already finished.

Which meant hours and hours of sanding.

Thankfully my partner has a multifunction power drill (I think that’s what it’s called?) which has an adapter for sanding, and we were able to use that to sand the majority of the lid organizer. But it was very difficult to reach down to the creases between the dowels. Deciding the perfect was the enemy of the good, we just sanded it as best we could, stained it, and called it a day.

 

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We tried to mimic the shade of the kitchen cart, and I think we got pretty close.

 

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The end result? No more clattering pot lids cascading out of the cabinet whenever I need to grab a frying pan.

And there are even a few hanging hooks below for small pots and pans or mugs.

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The dowels didn’t come out perfectly, and one of the back screws didn’t want to go far in the wall. Nonetheless, I’m still ridiculously happy with it.

There’s something particularly nice about having done this ourselves. I don’t have a lot of downtime at home, and so carving out the hours to see this through from start to finish was in itself a challenge. From bargain hunting on Craigslist to careful wood staining to wall-mounting, this project was a lot more about time and energy than about money. And while I know there are imperfections in the final piece, I somehow don’t mind. Maybe I even like it more because of those little imperfections, each a little testament to our journey down the slow, stumbling path toward self-sufficiency.

Gear Review: 3 Ultralight Backpacks from Gossamer Gear, Hyperlite, and ZPacks

Comparing Gossamer Gear’s Mariposa, Hyperlite’s Windrider 3400, and ZPack’s Arc Haul

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My old Gregory pack, which I bought 6 years ago before my first backpacking trip.

I hate my old Gregory pack, so I’ve been looking to upgrade to a lighter, better fitting pack for a while.

But making the decision about which backpack is so hard.

After hours of research, I ordered three backpacks online and tried them all out.  This article compares the Gossamer Gear Mariposa, the Hyperlight 3400 Windrider, and ZPacks Arc Haul.

Rough stats:

Mariposa: Weight: 32.4 ounces. Volume: 60L. Max carry: 35 lbs.
Windrider: Weight: 33.5 ounces. Volume: 55L. Max carry: 40 lbs.
Arc Haul: Weight: 24 ounces (unconfigured). Volume: 62L. Max carry: 40 lbs.

I tested these packs three ways (since I couldn’t take them backcountry and still return them):

  • With the Bearikade. I used my partner’s Bearikade Expedition—the biggest bear canister we have in the house—and threw 10 pounds of dumbbell weight into it. Then I loaded all my backpacking gear and the Bearikade into the backpack, with a brimming 3L Camelbak. I saw how it all fit, tried it on, and walked around my house for a bit.
  • With a smaller bear canister. I then repeated the exercise with all three backpacks, only replacing the Bearikade with a slightly smaller Garcia.
  • Without a bear canister.  While I do most of my backpacking in the Sierras, I hate the bear canister and occasionally go places where the amazing, lightweight Ursack is allowed. So I tried all three packs again without a bear canister, keeping the 10 pound weights, and all my gear including 3L of water.

Note: 10 lbs is about how much weight I would carry for 6 nights/7 days of food.

Things all these packs had in common:

  • All three packs could handle the Bearikade bear canister and all my gear.
  • All of them were well-constructed and seemed durable.
  • All of them transferred weight to the hips.

More details:

Mariposa

The Mariposa is super cushioned and rests close to the body. The weight balances low, so that there’s no sense of sway from a too-tall pack. The pockets are incredible. First, the hip pockets are a great size for my iPhone, a headlamp, snacks, chapstick, etc. They may even be too huge, as I only use poles on descents and the rest of the time my hands swing by my hips and would likely graze these big awesome pockets. There are a total of 7 external pockets, and they are stretchy and strong and fantastic for organizing.

The Mariposa has a squishy back panel that can be laid on the ground as cushioning for your bum during rests. Alternatively, it’s possible to put a short, folded up sleeping pad here. I’d need to cut my Z Lite sleeping pad to 8 squares, which would be enough for my head, shoulders, back and hips but not my legs. Alternatively, I could find a way to strap my whole sleeping pad to the bottom or outside.

The shoulders of the Mariposa were great for my frame, and the chest strap fell just above my breasts. I felt like this pack had been made with women’s shoulders and chest in mind.

My problem with the Mariposa was actually in how cushy it is. The wide belt felt like it would trap in heat and sweat. When I get too hot on long, midday hikes, I often find myself getting nauseous. The first thing I do in those circumstances is unhitch my hip belt, and sometimes I’ll put a damp bandana against my stomach to cool off my body. I was worried this hip belt, while cozy, might actually trap in too much heat.

Here’s me on the top of Mt. Elbert, hip strap off because of nausea:img_2720

I also worry about the back padding. The pack is comfortable and rests softly against my back with a wide panel of cushy padding. This makes for easy carrying, but I again worried about the summertime heat and how this pack would feel against my sweaty back for hours on end.

I was also somewhat concerned about the 35 lb weight limit. It’s very unlikely that I’d go over 35 lbs on most of my trips. In the Sierras, I have to carry more weight with the bear canister, but less water. In the desert, I carry more water but no bear canister. But on long desert treks, carrying 15 lbs of just water, I would easily be getting near and perhaps passing the 35 lb weight limit. Winter camping in the Sierras would also be problematic.

My partner tried on the three backpacks and he strongly favored the Mariposa. He said it was the most comfortable by far, and looked like it fit my frame better than the other two.

I wore the Mariposa in the house weighed down with 34 lbs of gear for about an hour, and it continued to stay comfy.

Windrider 3400

This pack is tough. The waterproof material seemed incredibly durable, the type of material I’d happily drag through brambles without fear. It seems significantly more substantial than the Mariposa, for all they are similar in weight. I loved the roll-top closure. There was more airflow between my back and the pack, with was nice. The padding was perfect.

Unfortunately, it was really hard to fit all my stuff in when I used the Bearikade. Without a bear canister, the pack excelled. With a bear canister, it was wobbly to walk in and the weight sat too far back on my shoulders. With the Bearikade, these problems were exacerbated. Filled to the brim, it towered slightly over my head and would sway a bit as I walked.

I think this would be an excellent pack for someone who rarely needed a bear canister. But for someone who uses a bear canister more often than not, this pack didn’t quite have the volume I wanted.

Note: There is actually a larger version of this pack, the Windrider 4400, which holds 70L and up to 65lbs. That version would likely fit a Bearikade and all my gear much better, but it’s honestly got a little more volume than I need and it weighs over 2 lbs.

Arc Haul

As soon as I put this pack on, I realized I’d ordered a size too big. I had ordered the Medium, since my torso is 19 inches long and the website highly encourages buying the Medium when in doubt. But this was a mistake: the pack was too big for me, and my head kept banging into a metal rod right behind my skull.

That said, the construction was really interesting. Of the three packs I ordered, this one handled the bear canister best. It felt tougher than the Mariposa, even though it was significantly lighter. It didn’t feel quite as durable as the Windrider.

The ZPack frame design is unique. You press down on the top corner of the pack until the external metal frame starts to bow, then you tighten straps to hold it in place. ZPacks recommends about a 2.5 inch arc. This arc transfers weight to the hips and keeps the pack away from your back, creating air flow. It also removes the need for much or any cushioning on the back, since the pack actually isn’t touching your back.

I loved the belt on the Arc Haul. It adjusts from the top and bottom separately, so it’s possible to create the perfect angle to cradle your hips. It’s also significantly more slender than the Mariposa belt. My partner said it dug into his waist and that they had reduced weight at the cost of necessary padding. But I actually really liked the lightweight feel of the belt.

I had a few big concerns about the Arc Haul:

  • The chest strap lands right in the middle of my breasts. My first thought was These packs are not designed for women. But then I realized I’d bought a size too large, and that I could get a shorter version. Hopefully the chest strap on the short version would sit more comfortably.
  • All but one of the reviewers on the Arc Haul website are men. I became a little concerned about the pack when the chest strap fit so awkwardly, and so I went to the ZPack website to see if other women had similar difficulties. I noticed that there were tons of reviews at the bottom of the page, but all of them were from men except one woman. And when I read her full review, I realized she’d had some big issues with the hip belt and had to create her own lumbar support. That made me concerned, but I also found more women who favorably reviewed the Arc Blast and Arc Zip (which are very similar to the Arc Haul).
  • The backpack relies on tight vertical straps holding the rest of the backpack bowed and away from the back, but the vertical straps themselves rest close to or against the body, which I’m worried could rub or become uncomfortable.
  • With an external metal frame, I found I could tip my head back into the metal rod at the top of the pack. However, again, I think these things could be addressed by getting a smaller size.

Of the three, I thought this pack handled 34 lbs of gear the best. It felt lightest on my back, transferring weight efficiently to my hips for a light feeling.  

My partner tried it on and immediately disliked it, feeling like there was no padding at all. He could feel the edge of the bear canister against his back. He said he wouldn’t want to do a long distance thru hike with this pack.

But I was intrigued. I felt like the clever design transferred weight well and kept me cool, and that it could handle a big bear canister or 7 liters of water or snow camping in the Sierras better than the other two.  It’s also configurable, with external pockets available for the hip belt.

Verdict

In case it wasn’t clear, these are all fantastic backpacks. Light, tough, and well-built, I think that I’d be happy with any of them. 

My specific use case (carrying a lot of bear canisters in the Sierras, lots of shoulder season backpacking) and body type (5’3″ and curvy, with a 19 inch torso) impact the kind of pack that will work well for me. I truthfully think all of these are packs that I could be happy with, and that would work well for lots of other people.

But, based on everything above, I’m planning on returning the Windrider and Arc Haul Medium, then ordering an Arc Haul Short. If the short size can address some of the issues I was having (with the chest strap hitting me in the middle of the breasts and the metal bar right behind my head), then I think there’s a high likelihood I’ll keep it. If not, the Mariposa is a very comfortable, well-made backpack.

I’ll update this once I’ve tried the Arc Haul Short.

Have thoughts to share about backpacks? Leave a comment below please.

Publishing my journals from the Colorado Trail

I just finished uploading the last of my trail journals from hiking the Colorado Trail. I included an explanation of why I was publishing a journal in spite of my ambivalence, some thoughts about backpacking as a woman, and an overview of my medical kit.

The daily journals are far more detailed than most people would need or even want to read, so it’s designed primarily for other thru hikers—especially first time thru hikers. The journals include a lot of the nitty-gritty details—yes, including the gross daily realities of backpacking for that long—but it’s the level of information I found valuable before my hike. It’s also a way for me to look back, whenever I want, to remember the trip.

There was a lot about the Colorado Trail that was hard. Many days were deeply physically challenging: nausea, blisters, pain, and often brutal cold. It was also mentally difficult—some moments of fear and self-doubt, and the stress it placed on my relationship.

It was also beautiful. Stark, epic, awe-inspiring, a bit transformative. I was more than a little heart-broken to leave, but I also remember what my partner told me on one of the last days we were hiking: that the trail will always be there, and we have our whole lives to walk it.

Check out the trail journals. 

 

 

Thinking about ledes

If your opening sucks, it doesn’t matter what else you say.

That was the theme for a writing workshop I hosted this week at EFF,  with some help from the ever-amazing Danny O’Brien.

We gathered a group of about 10 folks to discuss ledes on Friday afternoon. For the first 20-30 minutes, we talked about the philosophy of ledes and walked through several articles that demonstrated different approaches. I also created a handy worksheet (copied below in case anybody wants to steal it).

After walking through the basics, I passed out a few paragraphs from a complicated, very technical article and asked people to write the headline and first few sentences. Everybody had to write at least two ledes, then pair up and share them with a partner. Afterwards, we got back together as a group and shared a few.

This is the second time I’ve led a writing workshop specifically focused on ledes, and I personally thought it was a blast. I loved the fact that people actually brought pens, wrote something down, and shared it with the group. So often, writing workshops are about thinking, analyzing, and providing feedback, and that accesses the analytic parts of the brain without engaging the creative side. But there’s something a bit magical and even silly about taking pen to paper and creating something on the spot. And then getting to hear what people wrote—unpolished, a bit messy—is also really exciting for me. I am amazed at the ideas people come up with, and I also love the practice of working creatively and then sharing fearlessly in a welcoming environment.

While we didn’t have enough time for it Friday, I think creativity inspires creativity. One or two people who are willing to think outside the box and then share their writing can inspire others to want to do the same. So ideally, I’d like to do this workshop with enough time to do two rounds of free writing.

The main result of the workshop, I hope, is simply mindfulness. The next time someone from the group sits down to write a blog post, they’ll hopefully remember how vital those first few lines are and then give themselves permission to take a few risks.

My workshop handout:

Ledes are Awesome!

What is it?

  • Title
  • Subtitle
  • First couple lines (see examples)

Imagine that you are a director. Your lede is the opening shot in the movie.

What’s the purpose?

  • Convince people to click on the article
    • Intriguing
    • Relatable
    • Alarming
    • Funny
    • Fascinating
    • A topic you care about a lot
  • Convince people to keep reading after the first sentence
  • (Sometimes) Convey all the important stuff in an article, so people get the main gist even if they stop reading
  • Sets the tone for the rest of the article

Why should I care?

In some ways, the lede matters more than any other section in your article. If you don’t get it right, it doesn’t matter what you say later because people won’t click on your article or will abandon it before they get far along.

Also, some people will only EVER see the lede (e.g. skimming Google News results)

Strategies for the process of writing ledes:

  • Write several different ledes (both title and intro text); don’t just go with your first idea.
  • Don’t phone it in.
  • Get creative in a few drafts (you don’t have to use a creative idea, but it helps to get you thinking outside the box to write a few!). Remember: nobody sees your shitty first drafts.
  • Remember: there is no one single “right” way to write a lede!

Some ideas to try:

  • Assertions that may seem unlikely.
  • Narrative moments
  • Powerful quotes
  • A summary of the article—but only if it is a truly amazing summary!
  • A particularly intriguing fact or figure
  • A relatable human

Some things you might want to try to avoid in your lede:

  • A bunch of acronyms
  • Specific names of cases, bills and laws
  • Trying to cram all the details into the first sentence
  • “Last week” and other dated time references
  • Too many facts and figures can be bad (though one really scary fact or figure can be great)
  • A bunch of links

Launching Groundwork

Originally published at Groundwork Consulting.

Hello. I’m proud to unveil my newest project today: Groundwork.

Groundwork is a consulting service I’m offering that’s focused on one of the greatest needs I see in the nonprofit world today: leadership and management training. To address this, I’m offering individual coaching for nonprofit leaders of all sorts, from executive directors to first time managers to individual contributors looking to manage projects better.

Groundwork is the next big step in something I’ve been doing on the side for years: meeting with friends and acquaintances in the nonprofit world, talking through challenges, and supporting them in creating positive changes. In building this consulting service, I’ve developed a series of specific exercises and tools to help nonprofit leaders. My services are a blend of guided exercises and coaching sessions, and they’re designed to empower individuals to be better leaders. I offer sliding scale fees to ensure those who need it most can afford coaching.

Launching Groundwork is motivated by an interest in doing my part to fix a bigger problem. I’ve seen too many examples of nonprofit leaders thrust into extremely challenging management situations with few resources, often juggling too many responsibilities and without anyone they can turn to for useful support. Others have strong organizations, but they’re struggling to grow and improve their impact. While there are plenty of books on organizational management and some great executive coaches out there, almost everything is designed for the for-profit world. Often, these tools don’t translate well to nonprofit challenges, where resources are far thinner, the mandate for impact outweighs the mandate for expansion, and organizational culture is often steeped in a shared value system and ideology.

I’ve seen nonprofits stumble and even fail as a direct result of senior leadership feeling burned-out, spread thin, conflicted, and exhausted. I’ve seen other nonprofits struggle during leadership transitions, with experienced staff members quitting in a mass exodus and the board of directors turning against the ED. I’ve listened to countless managers and directors at nonprofits tell me that they hate their jobs, even though they love the work. I’ve seen employee problems derail organizational effectiveness, and I’ve seen unresolved distrust in the workplace blossom into a toxic environment that then drives off key employees. I’ve seen new managers struggling to earn the trust of a team, address major productivity issues, and establish a new team culture—often with the best of intentions but stumbling execution.`

It doesn’t have to be this way.

It’s possible—and sometimes it’s even fun—to establish a functional, collaborative, solution-focused organizational culture, and it starts at the top. I’m interested in helping nonprofits become more efficient, impactful, and creative by supporting those who have to make tough decisions, set policies, and steer the ship. I help nonprofits leaders enjoy their jobs and become more effective without sacrificing happiness, health, relationships, and personal productivity in the process.

Great management can save a nonprofit so much time, money, and energy. Retaining the best employees, attracting star performers, identifying and addressing breakdowns in the organization swiftly, fostering a culture of good communication and collaboration—all of these things result from thoughtful leadership practices.

But most nonprofits don’t invest in leadership or management training of any sort. I’ve asked about this, and often heard some version of “It’s too expensive, we don’t budget for that” or “Honestly, I don’t think anything can help us.” Or perhaps saddest of all: “We’d like to, but we couldn’t find any help that really understood our culture and mission. We don’t want some outside consultant coming in and telling us how to do things.”

I understand those concerns. Traditional coaching can be expensive, entrenched problems can seem insurmountable, and for-profit executive coaching services often aren’t in sync with the needs of many nonprofits.

I’m dying to see these problems addressed so that the NGOs I love and support can thrive. That’s why I launched Groundwork: to show that there are ways to foster highly productive, satisfied, value-driven organizations that are nimble enough to face unexpected challenges and have the tools they need to survive leadership changes well.

I think nonprofits can have all of that without having to allocate a huge budget toward leadership development.

If you want to learn more, please contact me. Please also drop me a note if you know somebody who might be a good fit for these services, and please help spread the word by telling friends and acquaintances about Groundwork.

Visit Groundwork Consulting.

Note: This work is a passion of mine. But it’s not my only passion.  To ensure I have time for my other commitments and for a personal life, I’m strictly limiting how many coaching clients I see at a time.

Cashless society

Tomorrow morning, I’m going to be participating in a discussion about a “less cash” society on WBUR Boston’s NRP News Station. It should air at 8 AM Pacific time, noon Eastern. You can call in and ask questions if you’d like! http://www.wbur.org/

The other guest is a Harvard economist who wrote a book proposing society phase out all large bills (over $10) and eventually replace small bills with heavier instruments, like coins. He believes that this will cut down on crime, like international gun and drug trafficking.

I think his proposal is extremely dangerous, especially since digital currencies like Bitcoin don’t yet have anonymity baked in (still looking hopefully at ZCash…). So here are some of the points I’m planning on bringing up:

  • Debit cards and credit cards create a detailed history of our lives, and have far more privacy consequences than cash. The banks generate and hang onto a record of every time you use a payment card, and the cozy relationships between banks and the government mean this data is a honeypot for government agents.
  • It’s not just your purchases that can be exposed by a record of financial transactions. These transactions are time and date stamped, and connected to specific locations. In short, our purchase records create a map of where we are and where we’ve been. It can create a pattern of our typical daily habits, and also demonstrate whenever we deviate from those habits. If you wouldn’t be comfortable with everyone wearing a GPS-enabled bracelet that logged location a few times a day, you shouldn’t be comfortable with everyone being forced to use credit cards.
  • When the banks collect this information on everyone, they can not only piece together a map of your life, they can figure out who was near you, and when.
  • Cash is a fundamental necessity for the unbanked, which include many individuals who are unable to provide the documents that banks require to set up an account such as a government issued ID. Remember, banks claim that under the Patriot Act they cannot provide an account to someone without a physical address. For those who are either sensitive about their address (such as the victim of stalking) or do not have a physical address (such as someone who does not have a home) this means no bank account.
  • Slowly eliminating cash won’t just mean that consumers overwhelmingly use payment cards; merchants will eventually stop accepting cash at all, thinking of it as a small and unnecessary portion of their business. And that’s bad not only because merchants and consumers have to foot the bill for payment card fees but because the small amounts of cash remaining (those hefty <$10 coins) will become obsolete if merchants won’t accept them.
  • Cash is a vital safeguard during emergencies, such as power outages caused by earthquakes or hurricanes.
  • Cash can be a lifeline for domestic violence victims preparing to exit from a dangerous situation. When an abuser has access to one’s digital accounts, available cash can be a lifeline to someone trying to get away and start a new life.
  • We have ample examples of banks abusing the trust of consumers for their own gain. The most recent example is Wells Fargo, where more than 5,000 employees opened over 1,000,000 fake accounts in the names of unwitting consumers. But there are countless examples of banks imposing predatory or unnecessary fees which surprise consumers. For someone living paycheck to paycheck, a $50 fee can be a disaster that means trading off on basic necessities like food or medicine.
  • It’s not just the government that may be interested in bank accounts. Bank accounts can be sought during divorce hearings, child custody battle, and other civil suits — not just to establish how much money someone has but to track where they have been at different moments in time.
  • There are a range of political and social causes that individuals may choose to support, but which they would not want connected to them via a paper trail. The obvious example is the gay rights campaign. When I was in high school in Virginia, I interned at a gay rights organization. This was back in the 90s, when you could lose your job as a teacher in Virginia for being gay. And at the time, many people preferred to make donations in cash. There will always be unpopular social and political causes whose supporters may want the anonymity of cash.
  • Financial institutions have been known to shut down and freeze accounts of individuals who have not been accused of any crime. The obvious example is WikiLeaks, which suffered a huge financial blockade without ever being charged in the United States. But since then, I’ve heard a number of stories of law-abiding websites and individuals who suffered from account freezes and shut downs, including online booksellers, literary archives, and even the Chelsea Manning Support Network (Note: I’m a cofounder of that organization).

In conclusion: those with the fewest resources –especially the unbanked, the poor, the homeless–can suffer dire consequences at the hands of banking institutions, and won’t have a financial cushion to protect themselves. There are many reasons we need financial privacy, for example to protect ourselves from government intrusion and to support unpopular movements. Finally, the banks have a bad track record. From shutting down the accounts of law-abiding citizens to creating fake accounts to countless other questionable practices, there are lots of reasons people may not want to entrust their hard-earned money to the bureaucratic behemoths of JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America.

But I’m sure there are a lot of other points I’m missing. What else? What other issues should I bring up tomorrow? Let me know your thoughts. The show is a full hour so I’ve got lots of time.

UPDATE: I got tons of feedback on Facebook and Twitter that I incorporated into my talking points. Thanks all!

The Kafkaesque battle of Soulseek and PayPal

A version of this article was originally published on EFF Deeplinks.

Does your business follow copyright law to the best of its ability? Not good enough. At least that was the case for one long-standing peer-to-peer network, which had its payment processing shut down after more than 14 years of being a loyal PayPal customer.

Soulseek, a peer-to-peer file-sharing network, faced a Kafkaesque battle with PayPal. When its donors were cut off from making payments to Soulseek, the network struggled to figure out what it had done wrong—or even get a response from PayPal to its questions. Thankfully, Soulseek reached out to EFF. We got in touch with Paypal and helped convince them to reinstate the network.

PayPal did the right thing by restoring Soulseek’s account, and we commend them for that. But we’re also concerned: it’s not scalable for EFF to intervene whenever a law-abiding website is shut off from a payment provider (as we have done with an online bookseller and a short story archive). In addition, we think of Soulseek’s situation as indicative of a larger trend of Web censorship, as websites that haven’t violated any laws are choked of funds—a situation that was disastrous for WikiLeaks and is currently tightening a noose around the electronic neck ofBackpage.com.

Soulseek describes itself as “an ad-free, spyware free, just plain free file sharing network for Windows, Mac and Linux.” The passion project of a husband and wife team, Soulseek itself doesn’t host files for users. Instead, users can join the network, connect with one another, and share files directly.

The platform is donation-driven. Without ads or fees, the service relies on the good will of the community to contribute back to keeping Soulseek going. While hardly profitable, this has been enough to keep the servers running and the software updated for many years.

And that was all fine, until the summer of 2015.

Not Granting Pre-approval at This Time

Instead, Roz Arbel, who runs the site with her husband Nir, heard from users who were unable to send in donations using MasterCard. I spoke with Roz in November and she briefed me on what happened. Roz called PayPal, and spoke to a general support agent. Through that agent, Roz learned that PayPal had sent Soulseek a questionnaire because, as Roz reported hearing from the PayPal representative, MasterCard was coming down on PayPal regarding filesharing networks.

Roz hadn’t seen any questionnaire from PayPal, so they sent a new one over. Roz was assured that service would be reinstated within 48 hours after the questionnaire was completed and returned.

Roz and Nir answered the questions promptly (see below for a list of the questions) and sent the questionnaire back. Most of the questions related to copyright infringement and whether the site was taking the necessary precautions to stay on the right side of the law. Soulseek has existed for as long as it has in large part because it has complied with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s safe harbor provisions. For example, Soulseek has a DMCA agent and a policy of blocking user accounts that get repeated copyright infringement notifications.

A week went by with no word from PayPal. It was now October, and Soulseek had been limping along without donations from MasterCard users. Roz again contacted PayPal. This time she heard from a representative of the company that the questionnaire had been received, but nobody inside PayPal had looked at it. Roz was assured that it would be escalated and dealt with immediately.

Within an hour, Soulseek received an email from PayPal stating that the account was being permanently limited. Funds could be withdrawn, but Soulseek would not be able to receive donations through PayPal. No reasons were provided for this decision. There wasn’t even a phone number.

As Roz and Nir Arbel explained in a blog post,

We have asked repeatedly for an explanation of this behavior, but we have been stonewalled at every turn, and have received only form emails telling us that we needed to be “pre-approved” for an account. When we asked what we need to do to be pre-approved, they emailed back and said that they are “not granting pre-approval at this time.”

After this, Roz reached out to EFF. We were able to connect with PayPal and discuss our concerns about the situation. We were happy that PayPal was willing to reverse its decision.

A Little Bit of SOPA

Payment networks blacklisting those accused of copyright infringement without due process is not a new idea. In fact, we saw something remarkably similar in SOPA, the notorious Internet blacklist bill introduced in 2011:

[A] payment network provider shall take technically feasible and reasonable measures, as expeditiously as possible, but in any case within 5 days after delivery of a notification under paragraph (4), that are designed to prevent, prohibit, or suspend its service from completing payment transactions involving customers located within the United States and the Internet site, or portion thereof, that is specified in the notification under paragraph (4). (text)

One of the most troublesome aspects of SOPA was that it did not require a neutral magistrate to consider the merits of a case and then rule on whether a site was actually engaged in copyright infringement. Instead, SOPA empowered payment providers to start shutting down websites as soon as they received written notification from a copyright holder.

This was a bogus idea in 2011, and was defeated in the single most powerful Internet protest to date. So Congress knows that the Internet community won’t stomach this type of censorship, and hasn’t dared to move a similar bill since.

Instead we’re seeing this sort of thing: quiet pressure from content holders aimed at putting pieces of SOPA into place without actually passing a bill.

These kinds of actions come with real costs. As Roz said in a phone interview, “It’s drastically reduced the number of donations we receive. It’s free for our users but it’s not free for us…we’re not doing anything wrong. We’re totally above board, and we’ve always tried to be.”

Free Speech On the Line

While the First Amendment imposes strict limitations on how the government can squelch online speech, corporations have more leeway. The argument, of course, is that consumers have choices about the companies they patronize, and companies also have certain First Amendment rights to choose what sorts of customers they want to allow.

When it comes to payment providers, that’s not exactly true.

Payment platforms are currently extremely centralized, creating what in practice is a duopoly. MasterCard and Visa are behemoth payment service providers, able to dictate through their internal policies what types of speech will and won’t be acceptable online. Other payment providers, including smaller entities like PayPal, Stripe, and many of the Bitcoin payment service providers, are bound by their agreements to Visa and MasterCard.

Until another payment alternative gains widespread popularity in processing online payments, websites are beholden to the terms set up by MasterCard and Visa. So the idea of consumer choice is entirely false.

Threats to free expression online can come in many forms, but shutting down or limiting a law-abiding website is censorship. While the situation with Soulseek turned out well in the end, we’re concerned about the many websites we haven’t heard from that may be facing similar problems. It’s time for the payment providers to start erring on the side of supporting legal speech and let courts—not arbitrary corporate policies—decide what content should be censored.

 

Questionnaire from PayPal (provided by Roz Arbel)

  1. Business Overview. Please provide a general overview of your business, identifying all related website URLs or apps, describing the services you offer and how revenue is earned, and indicating how you use or would like to use PayPal’s services. (The terms “you” and “your” refer to your business in the remainder of this questionnaire.)
  2. Typical Usage. Please describe the kinds of files that are most often stored or transferred using your services (indicating, for example, typical file types, sizes, content and/or other relevant attributes) and, to the extent of your knowledge, the typical purposes that your customers have for using your services.
  3. Incentives for Uploaders. Do you offer rewards, cash payments or other incentives to some or all users who upload files? If so, please describe your related practices, including the criteria used to determine the nature and amount of incentives that users are entitled to receive.
  4. Membership Tiers and Benefits. Please describe any membership tiers, subscription plans or service levels that you offer (e.g., “free,” “premium,” etc.), indicating for each any payments required and the main benefits users receive. Are paying users entitled to enhanced benefits related to downloading or otherwise accessing files uploaded by other users, such as faster access speeds, higher allowances for total amount of data accessed, or the reduction/elimination of wait times, captchas or advertising? If so, please describe the related terms.
  5. Forum Codes. Do you offer “forum codes,” “URL codes,” “HTML codes” or other features that facilitate the incorporation of links to uploaded files on third-party websites? If so, please describe such features.
  6. Link Checker. Do you offer users a link checker or other functionality that helps users determine whether links to uploaded files have been disabled. If so, please describe such functionality.
  7. File Deletion. Please describe any practices you employ related to the expiration, purging or other automated deletion of uploaded files. Is the timing of a file’s deletion influenced by the frequency with which it is downloaded or otherwise accessed? If so, please explain.
  8. Information Collection. Do you collect information about the uploaders of files? If so, please describe your related practices, including whether you collect any of the following: name, postal address, email address and IP address.
  9. Repeat Infringement. Please describe any practices you employ to prevent users of your system from uploading copyright infringing files on multiple occasions. Please include information about any technological methods you use to identify repeat infringers, such as methods involving the IP addresses of computers used to upload files. If a policy or other information related to repeat infringement is available on your website, please provide a link.
  10. Copyright Infringement Reports. Please describe your practices related to soliciting, receiving and responding to reports from third parties about copyright-infringing files accessible through your service. If a policy, reporting instructions or other information related to such practices (e.g., a DMCA policy) is available on your website, please provide a link.
  11. Illegal File Reports. Please describe your practices related to soliciting, receiving and responding to reports from third parties about illegal files accessible through your service (other than reports of copyright infringement covered by Item 10 above). If a policy, reporting instructions or other information related to such practices is available on your website, please provide a link.
  12. Monitoring. Do you employ any practices involving the monitoring of uploaded files to identify and remove copyright infringing files or other illegal files? If so, please describe those practices, including any manual review or automated scanning of files performed by your staff or by any third-party firms. Please indicate the names and website URLs of any such third-party firms.
  13. Law Enforcement Cooperation. Please describe your practices with respect to responding to requests or orders from law enforcement, courts or other government bodies, such as information requests, discovery orders, search warrants and subpoenas.
  14. Child Exploitation. Please describe any actions you take if you become aware that a file uploaded to your system involves child exploitation or any sexually-oriented depiction of a minor.
  15. Other Controls. If you employ any processes or controls not otherwise covered in your responses to this questionnaire that are aimed at preventing or otherwise addressing any actual or potential use of your system for the storage or transfer of illegal files or for other illegal activities, please describe them.
  16. Point of Contact. Please identify and provide contact information (including phone number and email address) for a person who will serve as PayPal’s point of contact with respect to our review of your business and any future inquiries or concerns we may have.

How we crowd-sourced transcripts of the entire Manning court martial

Originally published on the Freedom of the Press Foundation site.

On May 9, 2013, we made a bold claim on this website. We promised to crowd-fund enough money to hire independent court reporters to provide transcripts of the entire Manning court martial.

We knew that it was vital that the public have a virtual seat in Chelsea Manning’s trial1.  A public record of the court proceedings could fuel better, more accurate, and more frequent news coverage of the trial and could hold the government to account for its actions during the court martial. The government had forbidden tape recorders or cameras from entering the courtroom, so the only way to get an accurate accounting of the proceedings was sending in someone to take notes by hand.

Paying professional court reporters to transcribe the proceedings seemed like the perfect solution – if it was possible.

We knew it would be hard, but had no idea how hard. At every turn, we faced new obstacles to getting transcripts of the trial. So, finally, here’s the story of what we faced – and all the people who helped us surmount those obstacles.

Where do you even find a court reporter?

The very first problem we faced was finding a court reporter that would work with us. We knew we needed a reputable court reporter/stenographer that could do real-time transcripts and would be familiar with military jargon. But many court reporters rely on military court systems for their livelihood and didn’t want to jeopardize those relationships. In addition, we were asking for an incredibly quick turnaround time in conditions that didn’t allow the court reporters a recorded backup, or the ability to ask for any court participants to slow down or repeat their statements, like most court reporters can. Given the long court hours, this puts a toll on any court reporter, no matter how good.

Tony Rolland

Tony Rolland, who connected us with Gore Brothers

We were incredibly thankful when court reporter Tony Rolland (pictured right) approached us and recommended Gore Brothers. They are a professional court reporting firm that serves the larger DC/Baltimore metropolitan area. While other court reporters turned down our business, Gore Brothers understood how important it was to have accurate, timely records available to the public for one of the most important trials in our lifetime. Even though it was a politically contentious issue, Gore Brothers took us on and agreed to send in court reporters.

Working with Gore, we realized that one court reporter wasn’t going to be nearly enough. Instead, Gore brought together a team of 6 court reporters so that there would be continual coverage throughout the many weeks of the trial.

We know that journalists need transcripts quickly in order to write stories about the trial, and so we prioritized speed in getting these transcripts made. That meant two court reporters every day: one covering the morning and one covering the afternoon. By having court reporters only covering half days, we could ensure that we got transcripts edited and live on the website faster – morning sessions would go live at 7 PM in the evening, afternoon sessions would be published early the following morning.

Wait, it costs how much?

The second barrier was funding. We knew that professional court reporters were expensive, but we underestimated how expensive. We originally believed we needed to raise $40,000-$50,000 to cover the entire trial.  But it quickly became apparent that we needed to raise twice that much.

What made this possible? Amazingly, it was individual donors. Over one thousand six hundred people chipped in $10, $20, and $50 because they believed that the Manning trial should be public for the whole world. The average donation was under $100.

We made the platform, but ultimately it was the generosity and faith of individuals making small contributions that made the transcripts possible.

Taking on the U.S. government

Money and a team of top-notch court reporters weren’t the only thing we needed to cover the Manning court martial. We also had to get into the courtroom, and the government made it very difficult for us and many other media organizations to access the trial.

We knew there were strict regulations preventing any electronic equipment in the courtroom, but the media center allowed journalists to bring in laptops as long as they didn’t record or connect to the Internet during the proceedings.

We knew we were far more likely to be allowed to bring stenography equipment into the media center than into the courtroom, so we teamed up with the Verge, the Guardian, and Forbes. Each organization requested a press pass for their reporter and a second press pass for a court reporter to accompany their reporter.

Unfortuantely, each was issued only one press pass, meaning there wasn’t an extra space for our court reporter.

And we weren’t the only ones shut out. Of the 350 media applications the government received, only 70 were granted.

We weren’t ready to give up. With the help of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, we organized a coalition of twenty major media organizations – including the Los Angeles Times, NPR, Fox News, and the New Yorker – and sent a letter to the Army requesting two additional press passes.

We also tried to find someone to lend us a press pass.  We reached out to individual media organizations and also tweeted in hopes that someone would lend us one, with no luck.

I flew out to Fort Meade the weekend before the court martial was scheduled to begin and began approaching journalists who had been granted press passes. Unsurprisingly, almost all of them refused to lend Freedom of the Press Foundation a pass.  Many wanted to help, but they didn’t want to give up their press passes for the first day of a historic trial.

Finally, the night before the trial began, we managed to get one press pass for the first day. Nathan Fuller, a blogger for the Private Manning Support Network2, temporarily loaned us his pass. We are deeply indebted to Nathan for giving up his seat in the media center that day. It’s the only reason we managed to get a transcript of the first day.

After the first few days, the crowd in the media center thinned. We were able to use donated press passes from ARD German Radio, the Verge and Forbes.

During the trial

When court reporters work, they use a computerized stenotype machine to make a quick transcript. They sit close to the judge so that they can hear everything, and have the ability to interrupt proceedings or ask for clarifications in order to get an accurate transcription.  Above all, court reporters make a recording of everything, and double-check their transcripts against the audio recording.

Our court reporters were denied all of these things. They were in a room with the rest of the media, watching a live video feed of the court proceedings. The audio was muffled and difficult to understand at times, and there was no way to interrupt proceedings when things were hard to understand.

Worst of all, they were forbidden recording devices – so there was no way to double-check the accuracy of their notes. Instead, our court reporters simply had to transcribe as quickly as possible, often without breaks for long stretches of time, and try to get every word down accurately.

We also had trouble switching out court reporters midday. The strict rules meant that everyone who wanted in the media center had to be on base by 8 AM. This meant that both of our court reporters had to be on base at 8 AM, even though one didn’t start working until after lunch.  It was not until the defense brought this issue to the judge was our court reporter allowed to show up half way through the day.

Alexa O'Brien

Alexa O’Brien outside the media center at Ft. Meade. Photo by Xeni Jardin.

On more than one occasion, we ran into technical difficulties. Once we even lost a large section of the transcription.  Journalist Alexa O’Brien (pictured left) –whose own meticulous hand-typed transcripts of the trial have been an invaluable service to the public–generously offered to lend us her transcript from that day, for which we are deeply grateful. Her attention to detail is one of the many reasons we awarded Alexa a grant before the trial began.

After the trial

In all, we raised over $100,000 – all from individual contributions.

After fees taken out by credit card processors and our fiscal sponsor, that was about $5,000 more than the total needed to pay for the court reporters.

When we originally announced this campaign, we promised to donate any extra funds to the Manning Support Network. The Support Network has decided to apply half of that money to Chelsea Manning’s legal fees during her appeal and has generously offered to donate the other half back to the Freedom of the Press Foundation so we can continue our work.

You’ve probably noticed that there were a lot of people who went out on a limb to help us – folks like Tony Rolland, Gore Brothers, Nathan Fuller, Alexa O’Brien, Forbes, the Verge, the Guardian, ARD German Radio, the twenty media organizations that signed onto a coalition letter in support of our endeavor, and the hundreds upon hundreds of people who donated to ensure we could cover the costs of the court reporters. It is their generosity and their courage that was responsible for the Manning transcripts being freely available to the public today.

  • 1.Shortly after the trial concluded, Chelsea Manning publicly acknowledge that she identifies as a woman and prefers the name “Chelsea” to “Bradley.” We respect this decision and will use it going forward when possible. However, in the transcripts her name is still written as “Bradley” for historical accuracy.
  • 2.Disclosure: I am a steering committee member of the Private Manning Support Network, and also a proud co-founder.

The cost of censorship in libraries

A version of this was originally published on EFF Deeplinks.

This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the enforcement of the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which brought new levels of Internet censorship to libraries across the country. CIPA was signed into law in 2000 and found constitutional by the Supreme Court in 2003. The law is supposed to encourage public libraries and schools to filter child pornography and obscene or “harmful to minors” images from the library’s Internet connection in exchange for continued federal funding. Unfortunately, as Deborah Caldwell-Stone explains in Filtering and the First Amendment, aggressive interpretations of this law have resulted in extensive and unnecessary censorship in libraries, often because libraries go beyond the legal requirements of CIPA when implementing content filters. As a result, students and library patrons across the country are routinely and unnecessarily blocked from accessing constitutionally protected websites.

First, libraries don’t actually have to comply with CIPA, which only applies to libraries that accept e-rate discounts or Library Services and Technology Act grants for Internet access; libraries that turn down this funding need not comply with the law. For example, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library in San Jose has successfully fought initiatives to install Internet filters, even at the cost of certain federal funds.

For institutions it does cover, CIPA has three requirements: that schools and public libraries adopt a written policy that includes an Internet filter, that they hold a public meeting before the policy is enacted, and that the Internet filtering is enforced when the computers are used. As Caldwell-Stone explains, the Internet policy must include a few things, specifically:

Schools and libraries subject to CIPA must certify that the institution has adopted an internet safety policy that includes use of a “technology protection measure”—filtering or blocking software—to keep adults from accessing images online that are obscene or child pornography. The filtering software must also block minors’ access to images that are “harmful to minors,” that is, sexually explicit images that adults have a legal right to access but lacking any serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.

According to CIPA, libraries must place filters on all the computers owned by the library, though the filter can be turned off upon request. Schools that are covered by CIPA have some additional requirements (see text of CIPA).

What should not be censored under CIPA? Even a casual reading of the law makes it clear that only images, not text or entire websites, are legally required to be blocked. Libraries are not required to filter content simply because it is sexual in nature (sexual content isn’t necessarily obscene; it may have serious literary, educational, or artistic value, for example). Libraries aren’t required to block social networking sites, political sites, sites advocating for LGBTQ issues, or sites that explore controversial issues like genocide or gun laws or WikiLeaks.

But unfortunately, that’s not what’s happening on the ground. Libraries across the country are routinely overblocking content, censoring far more than is necessary under the law. This means library patrons are cut off from whole swaths of the World Wide Web, hampering their access to knowledge.

Problems with CIPA

After 10 years of CIPA, we now know that the law is widely misunderstood and used as an excuse for censorship. Here are a few of the main problems:

Library filters block constitutionally protected content. Library filters often block many sites that aren’t pornographic or obscene in nature. This may happen because the filters aren’t very accurate at detecting certain types of content or it may happen because the libraries set the filters to block content that should be accessible (filters typically have a range of options that can be manually adjusted during setup). As a result, filters have been known to block LGBTQ-themed sites, websites for art museums, information on teen smoking, Second Amendment advocacy sites, and sites about role playing games.

Filters don’t actually effectively block obscene content. CIPA’s objective is to prevent certain harmful and obscene material from being accessed from libraries and schools. But filters aren’t perfect. In addition to blocking legitimate content, filters can fail to block certain content that is obscene. Testing and analysis (PDF) of several available filtering technologies conducted by the San Jose public library in 2008 found that filters don’t work:

In all four filters tested, image filtering had a low rate of accuracy. Many images of an adult sexual nature were displayed on web pages accessed by the testers, and additionally the image search results pages and most of those images’ full-size versions and/or parent sites could be accessed as well. Because of the ability of image search engines (like Google Images and Yahoo Image Search) to display thumbnails which often aren’t treated as “real” images by the filtering programs, image filtering is a problem for the filtering software’s AI. Images of an adult sexual nature from image search engines, pages with images of an adult sexual nature but “fake” innocent text, or images of an adult sexual nature posted to social sites like Craigslist were consistently displayed in all four filter tests.

The deficiency of filters was emphasized by the very public failure of Homesafe, a network-level filter that was offered by one of Britain’s largest Internet providers. The filter was designed to block adult content on the network level, but in late 2011 it was revealed that the filter failed to block Pornhub, which offers thousands of free explicit videos and is ranked as the third largest pornography provider on the web.

Kids are under-prepared for the open web. One of the harmful side effects of CIPA is that many kids who rely on schools and libraries for Internet access are prevented from experiencing the unfiltered web.  While in the short -term this supposedly protects children from accessing harmful content, it also robs kids of the chance to learn skills necessary to navigate the web as a whole. When websites such as social networking sites, political advocacy sites, and LGBTQ-themed sites are censored from the Internet experience of young adults, we are failing to empower our children with the skills they need to use good judgment, common sense, and basic precautions when browsing the web. Rather than employing overly stringent filters to censor the Web, libraries and schools should educate students to protect themselves online.

We don’t know exactly what’s being blocked. Among the many problematic issues with Internet filters in libraries is the lack of transparency around what’s filtered. There’s no solid documentation of which libraries are filtering what specific websites. Part of this stems from libraries not being transparent about their decision to voluntarily block more content than required by law. Additionally, most filtering technology companies closely guard their algorithms for blocking sites, claiming trade secrecy. Because we don’t have a comprehensive list of what’s getting blocked, it’s difficult to judge whether some filters are more speech-friendly than others or whether some libraries have set their filters to censor more content than they should.

Content blocking goes against the ethical obligations of librarians. Librarians play an important role is preserving free speech online — a role we recognized with our 2000 Pioneer Award honoring librarians everywhere. The American Library Association has codified the ethical obligations involved in its code of ethics: “We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.”

What can be done: fighting back against censorship in libraries

If you are concerned about the harmful ramifications of Internet censorship in libraries, you can help fight back:

Speak to your library. Find out if your library has a policy regarding censorship and ask to see it. Voice your concerns about the harmful ramifications of filters in libraries, and explain that filters are never 100% accurate.

Attend the public event. Every library that is seeking to institute a new censorship policy under CIPA is required to have an open meeting to solicit public feedback. Attend the meeting and let the library know that you think your community will benefit from an uncensored Internet.

Ask to have the filter removed. As a library patron, you may find online content blocked that obviously should not be – such as anatomy sites necessary for research.  If this happens to you, don’t ignore it and try to find an alternate source. Tell the librarians on staff what happened and ask to have the filter removed so you can access the legitimate content. Every time you speak out for your rights to access content, you’re making the librarian aware that the filters are blocking too much.  This not only helps prompt libraries to revisit filtering policies, it helps ensure libraries are familiar with the process of removing filters upon request.

Celebrate 404 Day with EFF. Next April 4, EFF will join several partners around the country to raise awareness of library Internet censorship. Mark your calendar now and stay turned for more information. Want to host an anti-censorship event in your school or community on that day? Email parker@eff.org and we can help.