Digital Rights On the Ground: The View from EFF’s Intake Desk

If you’re familiar with EFF, you know that we do our best to defend and promote digital civil liberties through a powerful blend of impact litigation, policy analysis, grassroots activism, technological development, and more.

But you may not know that EFF also provides a legal intake and referral service. As EFF’s Intake Coordinator, I field thousands of requests for assistance every year, which can range from someone looking for legal representation after being sued for publishing negative online reviews, to someone outside of the U.S. reporting Internet shutdowns in their country, to an elected official who is worried about the risks of law enforcement using their city’s security cameras to target undocumented community members.

We’re grateful every time someone reaches out to us for assistance, not only because we can provide a unique resource for those facing issues where technology and law intersect, but also because they help us track and respond to emerging digital rights issues.

What Sorts of Requests do we Receive?

We see a wide, and wild, range of legal queries. When a request for legal assistance comes in (via email, phone, or mail), we start by reviewing the situation and identifying how we can help. You can read more about our assessment criteria here.

We can’t provide details about these requests, because these communications are protected by the attorney-client privilege, regardless of whether EFF ultimately provides direct representation or advice. But they tend to fall into the broad and sometimes overlapping categories of privacy, speech, and creativity/innovation. 

A bulk of the requests that come to us fall under the umbrella of privacy. These often come from public defenders seeking help on issues such as search and seizure of devices and communications, decryption or phone unlocking, wiretapping, warrants, location searches, and more. We also hear from privacy-conscious startups looking for help developing their own privacy policies; journalists and activists who fear they’re being surveilled or investigated by law enforcement; and people seeking advice on the legality of non-governmental entities (like Homeowners Associations and corporate employers) using surveillance technologies. Many students also reach out to us to report instances of schools adopting surveillance technology to spy on students while they’re at school, at home, or even on their social media—reports that helped us in developing our recently-launched Surveillance Self-Defense Guide for Students.

Many other requests touch on free speech and freedom of expression. For example, many people write to report instances of censorship by various online platforms, providing us with details that inform our work advocating for fair, equitable, and transparent content moderation practices.  We also regularly hear from consumers and activists hit with lawsuits over their online reviews or political activism. These lawsuits, known as Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP) suits, are intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense unless they abandon their criticism or opposition. Reports of this kind of abuse is one motivating force behind EFF’s work as part of an Anti-SLAPP Task Force called Protect the Protest

Requests that fall into the creativity/innovation bucket usually pertain to patent, copyright, and/or trademark law. For instance, we frequently hear from people who’ve had their YouTube channel targeted by a DMCA takedown notice and don’t know what to do next (they usually find our Guide to YouTube Removals very helpful!). People also often reach out to us after learning that their ISP has received a subpoena for their information based on allegations of copyright infringement (and for this, we’ve created our Subpoena Defense Resource page). 

We also regularly hear from individuals, nonprofits, students, and others who are targeted by copyright trolls over images published on their websites. In the same vein, many small businesses contact us after being targeted by patent trolls who use questionable patents as legal weapons to threaten innovators. Both threaten their targets with expensive legal battles in order to scare them into settling (which, while perhaps cheaper than litigation, can often still be devastating to nonprofits, small companies, or anyone with limited resources). 

Of course, in many situations, these issue areas overlap. For example, the U.S.-Nigerian investigative news agency Sahara Reporters has become the target of a campaign of surveillance, cyberattacks, and now abusive DMCA takedowns meant to frustrate their critical journalism activities. The copyright allegations also come amidst a criminal case against the outlet’s founder and publisher, Omoyele Sowore, who was jailed for months and is now facing charges of treason after criticizing Nigeria’s president and organizing protests calling for improved governance. They reached out to us through EFF intake, and our lawyers were able to jump into action to represent them in filing a counter-notice. Sahara Reporters’ experience shows how copyright can be used in coordinated attacks on free speech and political activity, and we’re glad for this opportunity to step in and fight for press freedom.

What if EFF can’t take the case? EFF’s Legal Referral Service

Because EFF is a small impact litigation organization that aims to affect the law and Internet freedom broadly, we have to choose our cases carefully. Unfortunately, this means that we can’t help everyone that reaches out to us. 

But we don’t like to leave anyone without some resources. So we also operate a legal referral service through our Cooperating Attorneys list. The list includes hundreds of lawyers from around the nation who are passionate about digital rights issues.  Through this referral network we connect hundreds of people to attorneys each year, often pro bono or at a reduced fee. 

*(Sidenote- if you are an attorney that wants to join this list, shoot an email to info@eff.org!)*

General Queries

Here at Intake, we also receive many non-legal requests for assistance.

We often hear from people around the country that want to prevent their towns and counties from adopting new surveillance technologies. We’re happy to hear these updates and provide as much support as we can in helping to oppose or cast a light on such moves. In these instances, we often do our best to connect people to local Electronic Frontier Alliance groups, or encourage them to start their own. 

People who believe their digital security has been compromised also often reach out to us for help. Unfortunately, it would be impossible for our small organization to provide individual consultations in each of these instances. But we’ve published some amazing digital security resources, like our Surveillance Self Defense Guide, which help people assess their risk of surveillance and take measures to protect against it.

Our supporters also often write to find out how they can connect with us in person. The best route to go here is to keep an eye on our Events Calendar to check for events where we plan to participate. We also sometimes host Member meetups as a way to connect with our supporters, and those also get posted to that calendar.

As the current bearer of the Intake Coordinator title, I feel lucky to be in a position where every day I get to figure out how to help people from around the world that come to us to share their stories, issues, and experiences. I also want to add that EFF is a non-profit organization, and we owe our ability to provide this service to the donations we receive from our over 30,000 members. It’s their financial support that has allowed us to tirelessly defend digital rights for the past 30 years.  Our legal intake service enables us to share the knowledge and resources we’ve gained during this time, and it’s a true privilege for us to be able to offer it.

If you need legal help, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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Author: Haley Pedersen

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