Digital rights

The decisions we make now about the internet will define our future

The note began: "Dear Colleagues . . . As it is happening more and more often when we have to decide on anything related to the internet, you are receiving these days plenty of emails regarding tomorrow's vote . . . I am convinced you will reject that sort of pressure and threats."

"Pressure and threats" seems like an odd way for an elected official to refer publicly to correspondence from constituents. And yet that is just what Ignasi Guardans MEP was talking about when he sent this email to his colleagues in the European Parliament ahead of an important vote on new telecommunications legislation.

A week later, the US House of Representatives would reject a finance bill that Congress had given itself black eyes writing, thanks to "pressure from Main Street". People power, it seems, is enjoying a renaissance. And elected officials seem to be rather thrown by it.

For most of the two-plus years I have been writing this column, I've been running an organisation called the Open Rights Group. A grass-roots advocacy organisation, ORG campaigns for civil and consumer rights in the field of digital technology. It was ORG, along with other NGOs across Europe, that encouraged people to write to their MEPs urging them to pass an amendment to legislation that would properly protect your rights online (they passed it). For UK citizens, that task was made easier by WriteToThem.com, which allows you to contact your MEP in a few easy clicks.

ORG itself was founded using another online tool - PledgeBank - to conduct a virtual whip-round of individuals willing to fund a digital-rights advocacy campaign. After 1,000 people had promised to stump up £5 per month, those who had tasked themselves with setting up the organisation felt confident enough to give it their best shot. And even though not all those 1,000 people made good on their promise (if you'd like to make up the difference and join our community, visit www. openrightsgroup.org/org-gro) enough of them did that the group was able to make more of an impact, and more quickly, than most NGOs could dream of doing.

Naturally, this is partly because the issues that ORG campaigns on - privacy, access to knowledge, digital free expression, like the issues I've tried to shed light on in this column - are the issues of the moment. There is no question that the next century will be defined by the decisions we make now about how to talk about, engage with and regulate this fascinating new technology.

But another small factor in this is the technology itself. The geek community that funds ORG is in the right place to warn of the threats new technology poses, but also to take early advantage of the opportunities it presents. This should signal to Guardans and other elected officials that more organisations as vocal and effective as ORG are just around the corner.