Podcast Episode: Fighting Enshittification

The early internet had a lot of “technological self-determination" — you could opt out of things, protect your privacy, control your experience. The problem was that it took a fair amount of technical skill to exercise that self-determination. But what if it didn’t? What if the benefits of online privacy, security, interoperability, and free speech were more evenly distributed among all internet users?

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(You can also find this episode on the Internet Archive and on YouTube.)

This is the future that award-winning author and EFF Special Advisor Cory Doctorow wants us to fight for. His term “enshittification” — a downward spiral in which online platforms trap users and business customers alike, treating them more and more like commodities while providing less and less value — was selected by the American Dialect Society as its 2023 Word of the Year. But, he tells EFF’s Cindy Cohn and Jason Kelley, enshittification analysis also identifies the forces that used to make companies treat us better, helping us find ways to break the cycle and climb toward a better future. 

In this episode you’ll learn about: 

  • Why “intellectual property” is a misnomer, and how the law has been abused to eliminate protections for society 
  • How the tech sector’s consolidation into a single lobbying voice helped bulldoze the measures that used to check companies’ worst impulses 
  • Why recent antitrust actions provide a glimmer of hope that megacompanies can still be forced to do better for users 
  • Why tech workers’ labor rights are important to the fight for a better internet 
  • How legislative and legal losses can still be opportunities for future change 

Cory Doctorow is an award-winning science fiction author, activist, journalist and blogger, and a Special Advisor to EFF. He is the editor of Pluralistic and the author of novels including “The Bezzle” (2024), “The Lost Cause” (2023), “Attack Surface” (2020), and “Walkaway” (2017); young adult novels including “Homeland” (2013) and “Little Brother” (2008); and nonfiction books including “The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation” (2023) and “How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism” (2021). He is EFF's former European director and co-founded the UK Open Rights Group. Born in Toronto, Canada, he now lives in Los Angeles. 

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Transcript

CORY DOCTOROW
So interop, you know, it's the idea that you don't need to buy your washing machine from the same people who sold you your clothes. You can use anyone's washing soap in that washing machine. Your dishes go in, in any dishwasher. Anyone's gas or electricity go into your car, you can bring your luggage onto any airline.
You know, there's just this kind of general presumption that things work together and sometimes that's just a kind of happy accident or a convergence where, you know, the airlines basically all said, okay, if it's bigger than seventy-two centimeters, we're probably gonna charge you an extra fee. And the luggage makers all made their luggage smaller than seventy-two centimeters, or you know, what a carry-on constitutes or whatever. Sometimes it's very formal, right? Sometimes like you go to a standards body and you're like, this is the threading gauge and size of a standard light bulb. And that means that every light bulb that you buy is gonna fit into every light bulb socket.
And you don't have to like read the fine print on the light bulb to find out if you've bought a compatible light bulb. And, sometimes it's adversarial. Sometimes the manufacturer doesn't want you to do it, right? Like, so HP wants you to spend something like $10,000 a gallon on printer ink and most of us don't want to spend $10,000 a gallon on printer ink and so out there are some people who figured out how HP printers ask a cartridge, ‘Hey, are you a cartridge that came from HP?’.
And they figured out how to get cartridges that aren't made by HP to say ‘Why yes, I am. And you know, it's not like the person buying the cartridge is confused about this. They are specifically like typing into a search engine, ‘How do I avoid paying HP $10,000 a gallon?’

CINDY COHN
That's Cory Doctorow. He's talking about all the places in our lives where, whether we call it that or not, we get to enjoy the power of interoperability.
I'm Cindy Cohn, the executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

JASON KELLEY
And I'm Jason Kelley, EFF's Activism Director. This is our podcast series How to Fix the Internet.

CINDY COHN
We spend a lot of time here at EFF warning about the things that could go wrong online -- and then of course jumping into the fray when they do go wrong. But on this show we're trying to envision what the world looks like if we start to get things right.

JASON KELLEY
Our guest today is Cory Doctorow. He is one of the world’s leading public thinkers about the digital world, as well as an author and activist. He writes both fiction and non fiction that has more ideas per page than anyone else we know.

CINDY COHN
We’re lucky enough that he’s been one of our colleagues at EFF for over 20 years and he’s one of my dearest friends. We had Cory on the podcast during our first season. I think he was our very first guest - but we thought it was time to check in again. And that’s not only because he’s so much fun to talk to, but also because the central idea he has championed for addressing the problems of platform monopolies – an idea called interoperability which we also call competitive compatibility – it’s started to get real traction in policy spaces both in the US and in Europe.
I quote Cory a lot on this show, like the idea that we don't want to go back to the good old days. We're trying to create the good new days. So I thought that it was a good place to start. What do the good new days look like in the Coryverse?

CORY DOCTOROW
So the old good internet was characterized by a very high degree of what I call like technological self-determination. Just the right to just decide how the digital tools you use work.
The problem was that it also required a high degree of technical skill. There are exceptions right. I think ad blockers are kind of our canonical exception for, you know, describing what a low-skill, high-impact element of technological self-determination is. Like more than half of all web users now run ad blockers. Doc Searls calls it the largest consumer boycott in human history.
And you don't have to be a brain surgeon or a hacker to install an ad blocker. It's just like a couple of clicks and away you go. And I think that a new good internet is one in which the benefits of technological self-determination, all the things you get beyond an ad blocker, like, you know, I'm speaking to you from a household that's running a pie hole, which is like a specialized data appliance that actually blocks ads in other things like smart TVs and apps and whatever.
I have a personal VPN that I run off my home network so that when I'm roaming - I just got back from Germany and they were blocking the port that I used for my mail server, and I could VPN into my house and get my email as though I were connected via my home - all of those things should just accrue to you with the ease that you get from an ad blocker because we can harness markets and tinkerers and cooperatives and people who aren't just making a thing to scratch their own itch, but are actually really invested in other people who aren't technically sophisticated being able to avail themselves of these tools too. That's the new good internet

CINDY COHN
I love that. I mean, you know, what is it? The future is here. It's just not evenly distributed. You just want to evenly distribute the future, and also make it simpler for folks to use.

CORY DOCTOROW
Yeah. You know, the problem of the old good internet was not the part where skilled technical practitioners didn't have to put up with nonsense from companies that didn't have their best interests at heart. Right?
The problem was that not everybody got that. Well, the good future of the internet is one in which we more evenly distribute those benefits. The bad future of the internet we're living in now is the one in which it's harder and harder, even for skilled practitioners, to enjoy those benefits.

CINDY COHN
And harder for the rest of us to get them, right? I hear two things, both as an end user, my world's gonna have a lot more choices, but good choices about things I can do to protect myself and places I can look for that help. And then as somebody who's a hacker or an innovator, you're gonna have a lot easier way to take your good idea, turn it into something and make it actually work, and then let people find it.

CORY DOCTOROW
And I think it's even more than that, right? Because I think that there's also the kind of incentives effect. You know, I'm not the world's biggest fan of markets as the best way to allocate all of our resources and solve all of our problems. But one thing that people who really believe in markets like to remind us of is that incentives matter.
And there is a kind of equilibrium in the product planning meeting where someone is always saying, ‘If we make it this bad, will someone type into a search engine, ‘How do I unrig this game?’ Because once they do that, then all bets are off, right? Think about again, back to ad blockers, right? If, if someone in the boardroom says, Hey, I've calculated that if we make these ads 20% more invasive we’ll increase our revenue per user by 2%.
Someone else who doesn't care about users necessarily, might say, yeah, but we think 20% of users will type ‘How do I block ads’ into a search engine as a result of this. And the expected revenue from that user doesn't just stay static at what we've got now instead of rising by 2%. The expected revenue from that user falls to zero forever.
We'll never make an advertising dime off of that user once they type ‘How do I block ads’ into a search engine. And so it isn't necessary even that the tools defend you. The fact that the tools might defend you changes the equilibrium, changes the incentives, changes the conduct of firms. And where it fails to do that, it then affords you a remedy.
So it's both belt and suspenders. Plan A and plan B.

JASON KELLEY
It sounds like we're veering happily towards some of the things that you've talked about lately with the term that you coined last year about the current moment in our digital world: Enshittification. I listened to your McLuhan lecture and it brought up a lot of similar points to what you're talking about now. Can you talk about this term? In brief, what does it mean, and, you know, why did the American Dialect Society call it the word of the year?

CORY DOCTOROW
Right. So I mean, the top level version of this is just that tech has these unique, distinctive technical characteristics that allow businesses to harm their stakeholders in ways that are distinct from the ways that other companies can just because like digital has got this flexibility and this fluidity.
And so it sets up this pattern that as the regulation of tech and as the competition for tech and as the force that workers provided as a check on tech's worst, worst impulses have all failed, we've got this dynamic where everything we use as a platform, and every platform is decaying in the same way, where they're shifting value first to users, to trap users inside a walled garden, and then bringing in business customers with the promise of funneling value from those users to those business customers, trapping those business customers, and then once everybody is held hostage, using that flexibility of digital tools to take that value away without releasing the users.
So even though the service is getting worse and worse for you, and it's less and less valuable to you, you still find yourself unable to leave. And you are even being actively harmed by it as the company makes it worse and worse.
And eventually it reaches a breaking point. Eventually things are so bad that we leave. But the problem is that that's like a catastrophic ending. That's the ending that, you know, everybody who loved LiveJournal had. Where they loved LiveJournal and the community really mattered to them.
And eventually they all left, but they didn't all end up in the same place. The community was shattered.
They just ended up fragmented and you can still hear people for whom LiveJournal was really important, saying like, I never got that back. I lost something that mattered to me. And so for me, the Enshittification analysis isn't just about like how do we stop companies from being bad, but it's about how we allow people who are trapped by bad companies to escape without having to give up as much as they have to give up now.

CINDY COHN
Right, and that leads right into adversarial interoperability, which is a term that I think was coined by Seth Schoen, EFF’s original staff technologist. It's an idea that you have really thought about a lot Cory and developed out. We heard you talk at the beginning of the episode, with that example about HP printers.

CORY DOCTOROW
That adversarial interoperability, it's been in our technology story for as long as we've had digital tools, because digital tools have this flexibility we've alluded to already. You know, the only kind of digital computer we can make is the Turing complete von Neumann machine.
It runs every program that's valid and that means that, you know, whenever a manufacturer has added an anti-feature or done something else abusive to their customers, someone else has been able to unlock it.
You know, when IBM was selling mainframes on the cheap and then charging a lot of money for printers and you know, keyboards and whatever, there were these things called plug compatible peripherals.
So, you know these companies they call the Seven Dwarfs, Fujitsu and all these other tech companies that we now think of as giants, they were just cloning IBM peripherals. When Apple wanted to find a way for its users to have a really good experience using Microsoft Office, which Microsoft had very steadfastly refused them and had, uh, made just this unbelievably terrible piece of software called, uh, office for the Mac that just didn't work and had all these compatibility problems, Steve Jobs just had his technologist reverse engineer Office, and they made iWork pages numbers in Keynote.
And it can read and write all the files from Excel, PowerPoint and Word. So this has always been in our story and it has always acted as a hedge on the worst impulses of tech companies.
And where it failed to act as a hedge, it created an escape valve for people who are trapped in those bad impulses. And as tech has become more concentrated, which itself is the result of a policy choice not to enforce antitrust law, which allowed companies to gobble each other up, become very, very concentrated.
It became easier for them to speak with one voice in legislative outlets. You know, when Seth coined the term adversarial interoperability, it was about this conspiracy among the giant entertainment companies to make it illegal to build a computer that they hadn't approved of called the Broadcast Flag.
And the reason the entertainment companies were able to foist this conspiracy on the tech industry, which was even then, between one and two orders of magnitude larger than the entertainment companies, is that the entertainment companies were like seven firms and they spoke with one voice and tech was a rabble.
It was hundreds of companies. We were in those meetings for the broadcast protection discussion group where you saw hundreds of companies at each other's throats not able to speak with one voice. Today, tech speaks with one voice, and they have taken those self-help measures, that adversarial interoperability, that once checked their worst impulses, and they have removed them from us.
And so we get what Jay Freeman calls felony contempt of business model where, you know, the act of reverse engineering a printer cartridge or an office suite or mobile operating system gives rise to both civil and criminal penalties and that means no one invests in it. People who do it take enormous personal risks. There isn't the kind of support chain.
You definitely don't get that kind of thing where it's like, ‘just click this button to install this thing that makes your experience better.’ To the extent that it even exists, it's like, download this mysterious software from the internet. Maybe compile it yourself, then figure out how to get it onto your device.
No one's selling you a dongle in the checkout line at Walmart for 99 cents that just jailbreaks your phone. Instead, it's like becoming initiated into the Masons or something to figure out how to jailbreak your phone.

CINDY COHN
Yes, we managed to free jailbreaking directly through the exceptions process in the DMCA but it hasn’t ended up really helping many people. We got an exception to one part of the law but the very next section prevents most people from getting any real benefit.

CORY DOCTOROW
At the risk of like teaching granny to suck eggs, we know what the deficiency in the, in the exceptions process is, right? I literally just explained this to a fact checker at the Financial Times who's running my Enshittification speech, who's like you said that it's illegal to jailbreak phones, and yet I've just found this process where they made it legal to jailbreak phones and it's like, yeah, the process makes it legal for you to jailbreak your phone. It doesn't make it legal for anyone to give you a tool to jailbreak your phone or for you to ask anyone how that tool should work or compare notes with someone about how that, so you can like, gnaw your own jailbreaking tool out of a whole log in secret, right? Discover the, discover the defect in iOS yourself.
Figure out how to exploit it yourself. Write an alternative version of iOS yourself. And install it on your phone in the privacy of your own home. And provided you never tell anyone what you've done or how you did it, the law will permit you to do this and not send you to prison.
But give anyone any idea how you're doing it, especially in a commercial context where it's, you know, in the checkout aisle at the Walmart for 99 cents, off to prison with you. Five-hundred-thousand-dollar fine and a five-year prison sentence for a first offense for violating Section 12 0 1 of the DMCA in a commercial way. Right? So, yeah, we have these exceptions, but they're mostly ornamental.

CINDY COHN
Well, I mean, I think that that's the, you know, it's profoundly weird, right? This idea that you can do something yourself, but if you help somebody else do it, that's illegal. It's a very strange thing. Of course, EFF is not like the digital Millennium Copyright Act since 1998 when it was passed, or probably 1995 when they started talking about it. But it is a situation in which, you know, we've chipped away at the law, and this is a thing that you've written a lot about. These fights are long fights and we have to figure out how to be in them for the long run and how to claim victory when we get even a small victory. So, you know, maybe this is a situation in which us crowing about some small victories, has led people to be misled about the overarching story which is still one where we've got a lot of work to do.

CORY DOCTOROW
Yeah, and I think that, you know, the way to understand this is as not just the DMCA, but also all the other things that we just colloquially call IP Law that constitute this thing that Jay calls felony contempt of business model. You know, there's this old debate among our tribe that, you know, IP is the wrong term to use. It's not really property. It doesn't crisply articulate a set of policies. Are we talking about trademark and patent and copyright, or do we wanna throw in broadcast rights and database rights and you know, whatever, but I actually think that in a business context, IP means something very, very specific.
When an investor asks a founder, ‘What IP do you have? What they mean is what laws can you invoke that will allow you to exert control over the conduct of your competitors, your critics, and your customers?’ That's what they mean. And oftentimes, each IP law will have an escape valve, like the DMCA's triennial exemptions. But you can layer one in front of the other, in front of the other in order to create something where all of the exemptions are plugged. So, you know, copyright has these exceptions but then you add trademark where like Apple is doing things like engraving nearly invisible apple logos on the components inside of its phones, so that when they're refurbished in the far east and shipped back as parts for independent repair, they ask the customs agency in the US to seize the parts for tarnishment of their trademark because the parts are now of an unknown quality and they bear their logo, which means that it will degrade the public's opinion of the reliability of an Apple product. So, you know, copyright and patent don't stop them from doing this, but we still have this other layer of IP and if you line the layers up in the right way, and this is what smart corporate lawyers do - they know the right pattern to line these different protections up, such that all of the exceptions that we're supposed to provide a public interest, that were supposed to protect us as the users or protect society - each one of those is choked off by another layer.

CINDY COHN
I think that’s one of my biggest frustrations in fixing the internet. We get stuck fighting one fight at a time and just when we pass one roadblock we have to navigate another. In fact, one that we haven’t mentioned yet is contract law, with terms of service and clickwrap license agreements that block innovation and interoperability. It starts to feel more like a game, you know, can our intrepid coder navigate around all the legal hurdles and finally get to the win where they can give us back control over our devices and tools?

CORY DOCTOROW
I mean, this is one of the things that's exciting about the antitrust action that we're getting now, is that I think we're gonna see a lot of companies being bound by obligations whose legitimacy they don't acknowledge and which they are going to flout. And when they do, presuming that the enforcers remain committed to enforcing the law, we are going to have opportunities to say to them, ‘Hey, you're gonna need to enter into a settlement that is gonna restrict your future conduct. You're gonna have to spin off certain things. You're gonna have to allow certain kinds of interop or whatever’.
That we got these spaces opening up. And this is how I think about all of this and it is very game-like, right? We have these turns. We're taking turns, our adversaries are taking turns. And what we want is not just to win ground, but we want to win high ground. We want to win ground from which we have multiple courses of action that are harder to head off. And one of the useful things about the Enshittification analysis is it tries to identify the forces that made companies treat us good. I think sometimes the companies treated us well because the people who ran them were honorable. But also you have to ask how those honorable people resisted their shareholders’ demands to shift value from the firm to their users or the other direction. What forces let them win, you know, in that fight. And if we can identify what forces made companies treat technology users better on the old good internet, then we can try and build up those forces for a new good internet. So, you know, one of the things that I think really helped the old good internet was the paradox of the worker power of the tech worker because tech workers have always been well compensated. They've always had a lot of power to walk out of the job and go across the street and get another job with someone better. Tech Workers had all of this power, which meant that they didn't ever really like form unions. Like tech union density historically has been really low. They haven't had formal power, they've had individual power, and that meant that they typically enjoyed high wages and quite cushy working conditions a lot of the time, right? Like the tech campus with the gourmet chef and the playground and the gym and the sports thing and the bicycles and whatever. But at the same time, this allowed the people they worked for to appeal to a sense of mission among these people. And it was, these were these like non-commercial ethical normative demands on the workforce. And the appeals to those let bosses convince workers to work crazy hours. Right? You know, the extremely hardcore Elon Musk demand that you sleep under your desk, right? This is where it comes from, this sense of mission which meant, for the bosses, that there was this other paradox, which was that if you motivate your workers with a sense of mission, they will feel a sense of mission. And when you say, ‘Hey, this product that you fought really hard for, you have to make worse, right? You've, you know, missed your gallbladder surgery and your mom's funeral and your kid's little league championship to make this product. We want you to stick a bunch of gross ads in it,’ the people who did that job were like, no, I feel a sense of mission. I will quit and walk across the street and get another job somewhere better if this is what you demand of me. One of the constraints that's fallen away is this labor constraint. You know, when Google does a stock buyback and then lays off 12,000 workers within a few months, and the stock buyback would pay their wages for 27 years, like the workers who remain behind get the message that the answer to, no, I refuse to make this product worse is fine, turn in your badge and don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out. And one of the things we've always had a trade in at EFF is tech workers who really cared about their users. Right? That's been the core of our membership. Those have been the whistleblowers we sometimes hear from. Those have been our clients sometimes. And we often say when companies have their users’ backs, then we have the company's back. If we were to decompose that more fully, I think we would often find that the company that has its users' back really has a critical mass of indispensable employees who have their users’ back, that within the balance of power in the company, it's tipping towards users. And so, you know, in this moment of unprecedented union formation, if not union density, this is an area where, you know, you and I, Cindy have written about this, where, where tech rights can be workers' rights, where bossware can cut against labor rights and interoperable tools that defeat bossware can improve workers’ agency within their workplace, which is good for them, but it's good for the people that they feel responsibility for, the users of the internet.

CINDY COHN
Yeah. I remember in the early days when I first joined EFF and Adobe had had the FBI arrest Dmitri Sklyarov at DefCon because he developed a piece of software that allowed people to copy and move their Adobe eBooks into other formats and platforms. Some of EFF’s leadership went to Adobe’s offices to talk to their leadership and see if we could get them to back off.
I remember being told about the scene because there were a bunch of hackers protesting outside the Adobe building, and they could see Adobe workers watching them from the windows of that building. We knew in that moment that we were winning, that Adobe was gonna back down because their internal conversations were, how come we're the guys who are sending the FBI after a hacker?
We had something similar happen with Apple more recently when Apple announced that it was going to do client side scanning. We knew from the tech workers that we were in contact with inside the company that breaking end-to-end encryption was something that most of the workers didn't approve of. We actually flew a plane over Apple’s headquarters at One Infinite Loop to draw attention to the issue. Now whether it was the plane or not, it wasn't long before Apple backed down because they felt the pressure from inside, as well as outside. I think the tech workers are feeling disempowered right now, and it's important to keep telling these stories and reminding them that they do have power because the first thing that a boss who wants to control you does, is make you think you're all alone and you don't have any power. I appreciate that in the world we’re envisioning where we start to get tech right, we're not just talking about users and what users get. We're talking about what workers and creators and hackers and innovators get, which is much more control and the ability to say no or to say yes to something better than the thing that the company has chosen. I'm interested in continuing to try to tell these stories and have these conversations.

JASON KELLEY
Let’s pause for just a moment to say thank you to our sponsor. “How to Fix the Internet” is supported by The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Program in Public Understanding of Science and Technology. Enriching people’s lives through a keener appreciation of our increasingly technological world and portraying the complex humanity of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.
And now back to our conversation with Cory Doctorow. Cory is well known for his writing and speaking but what some people may not realize is that he is a capital A Activist. I work with him closely on the activism team here at EFF, and I have seen firsthand how sometimes his eyes go red and he will throw everything he has into a fight. So I wanted to get him to talk a bit more about the activism side of his work, and what fuels that.

CORY DOCTOROW
I tried to escape EFF at one point. I actually was like, God, you know, the writing and the activism, I can't do both. I'm just gonna do one. And so I went off to do the writing for a few years, and I got so pissed off with things going wrong in the world that I wasn't actively engaged in trying to fix that I just lost it. And I was like, I, whatever negative effects accrue due to overwork are far less significant to me, both like intellectually and kind of emotionally, than the negative effects I get from feeling hopeless, right, and helpless and sitting on the sidelines while things that are just untenable, go on. And, you know, Cindy said it before, it's a long game, right? The activism game. We are sowing the seeds of a crop that we may never reap. And I am willing to understand and believe and make my peace with the idea that some of the stuff that I'm doing will be victories after I've left the field, right, it'll be for people who haven't even graduated high school yet, let alone going to work for EFF or one of our allies.
And so when I see red, when I get really angry, when I don't know, you know, the the DRM in browsers at the W3C or the European Union trying for, mandatory copyright filters for online services, I think like this is a fight we may not win, but it's a fight that we must fight, right? The stakes are too high not to win it, and if we lose it this time around, we will lay the groundwork for a future victory. We will create the people who are angry that the policy came out this way, who, when some opportunity opens up in the future, because you know these fights that we fight, the side that we're on is the side of producing something good and stable and beneficial. And the thing that we're fighting against has massive downstream harms, whether that's mandatory copyright filters or client-side scanning or breaking end-to-end encryption, right? Like if we lose a breaking end-to-end encryption fight, what we have lost is the safety of millions of people in whatever country that rule has been enacted, and that means that in a way that is absolutely deplorable and that the architects of these policies should be ashamed of, some of those people are gonna come to the most terrible harms in the future. And the thing that we should be doing because we have lost the fight to stop those harms from occurring, is be ready to when those harms occur, to be able to step in and say, not just we told you so, but here's how we fix it. Here's the thing that we're going to do to turn this crisis into the opportunity to precipitate a change.

JASON KELLEY
Yeah, that's right. Something that has always pleased me is when we have a guest here on the podcast and we’ve had many, who have talked about the blue ribbon campaign. And it’s clear that, you know, we won that fight, but years and years ago, we put together this coalition of people, maybe unintentionally, that still are with us today. And it is nice to imagine that, with the wins and the losses, we gain bigger numbers as we lay that groundwork.

CINDY COHN
And I think there is something also fun about trying to build the better world, being the good guys. I think there is something powerful about that. The fights are long, they're hard. I always say that, you know, the good guys throw better parties. And so on the one hand it's, yes, it's the anger; your eyes see red, we have to stop this bad thing from happening. But the other thing is that the other people who are joining with you in the fight are really good people to hang out with. And so I guess I, I wanna make sure that we're talking about both sides of a kind of activist life because they're both important. And if it wasn't for the fun part - fun when you win - sometimes a little gallows humor when you don't, that's as important as the anger side because if you're gonna be in it for the long run you can't just run on, you know, red-eyed anger alone.

CORY DOCTOROW
You know, I have this great laptop from this company Framework. I promise you this goes somewhere that, uh, is a user serviceable laptop. So it comes with a screwdriver. Even someone who's really klutzy like me can fix their laptop. And, uh, I drop my laptops all the time - and the screws had started coming loose on the bottom, and they were like, ‘hey, this sounds like a thing that we didn't anticipate when we designed it. Why don't we ship you a free one and you ship us back the broken one, we can analyze it for future ones’. So, I just did this, I swapped out the bottom cover of my laptop at the weekend, which meant that I had a new sticker surface for my laptop. And I found a save.org ‘some things are not for sale’ sticker, which was, you know, this incredible campaign that we ran with our lost and beloved colleague Elliot and putting that sticker on felt so good. You know, it was just like, yeah, this is, this is like a, this is like a head on a pike for me. This is great.

CINDY COHN
And for those who may not have followed that, just at the beginning of Covid actually, there was an effort by private equity to buy the control of the .org domain, which of course means EFF.org, but it means every other nonprofit. And we marshaled a tremendous coalition of nonprofits and others to essentially, you know, make the deal not happen. And save.org for, you know, the.orgs. And as Cory mentioned, our dear friend Elliot who was our activism director at the time, that was his last campaign before he got sick. And, we did, we, we won. We saved.org. Now that fight continues. Uh, things are not all perfect in .org land, but we did head that one off and that included a very funky, nerdy protest in front of an ICANN meeting that, uh, that a bunch of people came to.

CORY DOCTOROW
Top level domains still a dumpster fire. In other words, in other news, water's still wet. You know, the thing about that campaign that was so great, is it was one where we didn't have a path to victory. We didn't have a legal leg to stand on. The organization was just like operating in its own kind of bubble where it was fully insulated from, you know, formally, at least on paper, insulated from public opinion, from stakeholder opinions. It just got to do whatever it wanted. And we just like kind of threw everything at it. We tried all kinds of different tactics and cumulatively they worked and there were weird things that came in at the end. Like Xavier Becerra, who is then the Attorney General of California going like, well, you're kind of, you're a California nonprofit. Like, I think maybe we're gonna wanna look at this.
And then all of a sudden everyone was just like, no, no, no, no, no. But you know, it wasn't like Becerra saved it, right? It was like we built up the political pressure that caused the Attorney General of California who's got a thing or two on his plate, to kind of get up on his hind legs and go, ‘Hey, wait a second. What's going on here?’
And there've been so many fights like that over the years. You know, this is, this is the broadcast treaty at the UN. I remember when we went, our then colleague, Fred von Lohmann was like, ‘I know how to litigate in the United States 'cause we have like constitutional rights in the United States. The UN is not going to let NGOs set the agenda or sue. You can't force them to give you time.’ You know, it's like you have all the cards stacked against you there but we killed the broadcast flag and we did it like by being digitally connected with activists all over the world that allowed us to exploit the flexibility of digital tools to have a fluid improvisational style that allowed us at each turn to improvise in the moment, new tactics that went around the roadblocks that were put in our way. And some of them were surreal, like our handouts were being stolen and hidden in the toilets. Uh, but you know, it was a very weird fight.
And we trounced the most powerful corporations in the world in a forum that was completely stacked against us. And you know, that's the activist joy here too, right? It's like you go into these fights with the odds stacked against you. You never know whether or not there is a lurking potential for a novel tactic that your adversary is completely undefended on, where you can score really big, hard-to-anticipate wins. And I think of this as being related to a theory of change that I often discuss when people ask me about optimism and pessimism.
Because I don't like optimism and pessimism. I think they're both a form of fatalism. That optimism and pessimism are both the idea that the outcome of events are unrelated to human conduct, right? Things will get worse or things will get better. You just sit on the sidelines. It's coming either way. The future is a streetcar on tracks and it's going where it's going.
But I think that hope is this idea that if you're like, trying to get somewhere and you don't know how to get there, you're trying to ascend a gradient towards a better future - if you ascend that gradient to the extent that you can see the path from where you are now, that you can attain a vantage point from which you can see new possible ways of going that were obscured from where you were before, that doing something changes the landscape, changes where you're situated and may reveal something else you can do.

CINDY COHN
Oh, that's such a lovely place to end. Thank you so much, Cory, for taking time to talk with us. We're gonna keep walking that path, and we're gonna keep looking for the little edges and corners and ways, you know, that we can continue to push forward the better internet because we all deserve it.

JASON KELLEY
Thanks, Cory. It's really nice to talk to you.

CORY DOCTOROW
Oh, it was my pleasure.

JASON KELLEY
You know, I get a chance to talk to Cory more often than most people, and I'm still just overjoyed when it gets to happen. What did you think of that conversation, Cindy?

CINDY COHN
What I really liked about it is that he really grounds, you know, what could be otherwise, a kind of wonky thing - adversarial interoperability or competitive compatibility - in a list of very concrete things that have happened in the past and not the far past, the fairly recent past. And so, you know, building a better future really means just bringing some of the tools to bear that we've already brought to bear in other situations, just to our new kind of platform Enshittification world. Um, and I think it makes it feel much more doable than something that might be, you know, a pie in the sky. And then we all go to Mars and everything gets better.

JASON KELLEY
Yeah. You know, he's really good at saying, here's how we can learn from what we actually got right in the past. And that's something people don't often do in this, in this field. It's often trying to learn from what we got wrong. And the part of the conversation that I loved was just hearing him talk about how he got back into doing the work. You know, he said he wanted to do writing or activism, because he was just doing too much, but in reality, he couldn't do just one of the two because he cares so much about what's going on. It reminded me when he was saying, sort of, what gets his eyes to turn red of when we were speaking with Gaye Gordon-Byrne, about right to repair and how she had been retired and just decided after getting pulled back in again and again just to go wholly committed to to fighting for the right to repair after, you know that quote from The Godfather about being continually pulled back in. This is Cory and, and people like him, I think, to a tee.

CINDY COHN
Yeah, I think so too. That reminded me of what, what she said. And of course I was on the other side of it. I was one of the people that Cory was pinging over and over again.

JASON KELLEY
So you pulled him back in.

CINDY COHN
Well, I think he pulled himself back in. I was just standing there. Um, but, but it is, it is fun to watch somebody feel their passion grow so much that they just have to get back into the fight. And I think Gay really told that same trajectory of how, you know, sometimes something just bugs you enough that you decide, look, I gotta figure out how to get into this fight and, and, and make things better.

JASON KELLEY
And hopefully people listening will have that same feeling. And I know that, you know, many of our supporters do already.
Thanks for joining us for this episode of How to Fix the Internet. If you have any feedback or suggestions, we would be happy to hear from you. Visit EFF. org slash podcast and click on listener feedback. And while you're there, maybe you could become an EFF member and maybe you could pick up some merch. We've got very good t-shirts. Or you can just peruse to see what's happening in digital rights this week and every week. This podcast is licensed Creative Commons attribution. 4.0 International, and includes music licensed Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported by their creators. In this episode, you heard Xena's Kiss slash Madea's Kiss by M. Wick, Probably Shouldn't by J. Lang featuring Mr. Yesterday, Come Inside by Zepp Herm featuring Snowflake, and Drops of H2O the Filtered Water Treatment by J. Lang featuring Airtone. Our theme music is by Nat Keefe of Beatmower with Reed Mathis. How to Fix the Internet is supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's Program in Public Understanding of Science and Technology. I hope you'll join us again. I'm Jason Kelley.

CINDY COHN
And I’m Cindy Cohn.


Tuesday 2nd July 2024 7:06 am

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