The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), one of the leading groups claiming to advocate on behalf of internet users in the U.S., is set to testify before Congress on Thursday on the subject of social media censorship. But don’t expect them to be too hard on the tech giants — they’re funded by them.
EFF describes itself as “the leading nonprofit defending privacy, free speech, and digital innovation.” Its “free speech” section praises social networks for breaking down the “limitations inherent in traditional media,” including constraints imposed by “corporate gatekeepers.”
You’d expect EFF to be a leading voice against the power of the most powerful “corporate gatekeepers” of modern times, the tech giants. Yet their “action center” currently displays no campaign against Facebook or Google. No campaign against their censorship and gatekeeping, and no campaign against their brazen invasions of user privacy.
An EFF researcher confirmed to Slate that the group has no upcoming campaigns to tackle corporate data collection. Why?
First, the organization is directly funded by the tech giants. As Slate reports, the EFF took in approximately $822,000 in funding from Google in fiscal year 2017. (In fairness, this included matched contributions from Google employees.)
The revolving door between Google and the EFF, and the deep connections between the tech giant and the EFF’s board of directors is also something to behold. Here’s what consumer advocacy group Consumer Watchdog found, in a recent report on online child sex trafficking.
Pamela Samuelson (UC Berkeley Center for Law and Technology): Google is listed as a “corporate benefactor” of UC Berkeley’s Law School. Ms. Samuelson is also on the faculty of UC Berkeley’s School of Information where four of the seven board members are current or former Google executives: Hal Varian, Elizabeth Churchill, Betsy Masiello, and Nicole Wong. Ms. Samuelson and her husband Robert Glushko are also the founders of UC Berkeley’s Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic. The Berkeley Center for Law & Technology and Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic also received $700,000 as part of the Google Buzz cy pres settlement. Lorrie Cranor (Carnegie Mellon): Ms. Cranor, who served as an EFF board member until her appointment as the FTC’s chief technologist in 2015, has received nearly $850,000 in Google research awards, according to her CV. The money included nearly $350,000 in personal research awards and $400,000 shared with two other Carnegie Mellon researchers. She also received $178,920 as part of the cy pres settlement in the Google Buzz case.
Jonathan Zittrain & Brad Schneier (Harvard Berkman Klein Center): Google is one of only two corporate sponsors (the other is Facebook) of the Berkman Klein Center and has a long history with the institution and Mr. Zittrain. In 2010, Emily Brill wrote a profile of Google’s relationship with the Berkman Center, reporting that Google was Berkman’s top corporate backer and its fourth-largest donor. Mr. Zittrain is also personally close to Google co-founder Sergey Brin, according to Ms. Brill’s article. Neither Google nor the Berkman Klein Center discloses the amount of Google’s annual financial support, although Ms. Brill reported that Google had contributed “roughly $500,000 over the last two years.” Mr. Schneier is also a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center and a program fellow at New America’s Open Technology Institute. As highlighted above, Google is the largest corporate contributor to New America.Brad Templeton (EFF Chairman Emeritus): Mr. Templeton, who served as EFF’s chairman until 2010, has disclosed his close relationship with Google and its founders, noting on his personal website, “One, I’m a fan of Google, and have been friends with Google’s management since they started the company. I’ve also donework for Google advising on software design.” Joe Kraus (EFF Board Member, Google Director of Product Management): Mr. Kraus served simultaneously as an EFF Board Member and as a Google executive from 2005 to 2012 – first as Google’s Director of Product Management and later as a partner at Google’s VC firm, Google Ventures.
Revolving door for employees:
- Fred von Lohmann, an EFF senior staff attorney until 2010, Mr. Lohmann joined Google first as senior copyright council and currently serves as Google’s legal director for copyright.
- Erika Portnoy, a Google software engineer from 2005 to 2016. Today Ms. Portnoy is EFF’s “staff technologist”.
- Chris Palmer, As Google’s senior software engineer, Mr. Palmer took a leave of absence in 2010 to serve as EFF’s technology director, before rejoining Google a year later in 2011.
- Dan Auerbach, a Google software engineer, left Google in 2010 to join EFF as its technology director.
- Derek Slater, EFF’s “activism coordinator” until 2007, Mr. Slater joined Google as its senior public policy manager leading the company’s grassroots strategy in the SOPA-PIPA copyright fight in 2012.
The EFF hasn’t been completely silent on corporate censorship, the topic they’ve been called before Congress to discuss tomorrow. During the post-Charlottesville panic, they criticized tech companies for kicking neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer off the internet. They’ve also criticized private censorship of speech, calling for filtering tools instead.
But there’s a difference between publishing criticism and taking action. The EFF has been quick to launch campaigns against SESTA and FOSTA, and in favor of President Obama’s Title II regulations on internet service providers. Both of these positions favor tech giants like Google and Facebook. Yet when it comes to the topic they’ve been called to testify on tomorrow, the EFF offers words, not deeds.
EFF Executive Director Cindy Cohn said that the organization’s work “has been and always will be independent of our donors. EFF’s work advocating for civil liberties in the digital world is primarily funded by our 40,000 members.”
Cohn said that the vast majority of the Google-related funds reported by Slate were “donations from Google employees that were matched by the company. Employee matching funds are ubiquitous — most big companies have them and they are nonrestricted funds directed by employees not the company. These aren’t usually included in corporate giving reports since they aren’t directed by the corporation. Donations from Google itself were about $80,000.”
Cohn drew attention to EFF’s work tracking online censorship by social media companies, and their work to promote Privacy Badger, ad blocking tool. “This work is ongoing and we will continue to help tech users navigate the complexities of corporate data collection, analysis, and censorship.”
“The U.S. Congress has only recently shown any serious interest but we are also actively working on several proposals” said Cohn.