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Groklaw was the canary in the coal mine

Column Internet surveillance must be stopped or rendered ineffective with encryption
Fri Aug 23 2013, 13:00

"No matter how cynical you get, it's impossible to keep up." - Lily Tomlin

groklawpjFREEDOM AND THE RULE OF LAW lost a valuable resource and unique voice on Tuesday when Pamela Jones concluded that she could no longer in good conscience run Groklaw in the face of oppressively ubiquitous internet and email surveillance by US and allied intelligence agencies.

That was not just sad and unfortunate. It is absolutely unacceptable in a supposedly civilised society that an inoffensive, non-political legal researcher and information technology journalist perceived such a real threat to her privacy and that of her correspondents that she decided she had no choice but to stop using the internet almost entirely.

The metaphor of the canary in the coal mine springs to mind. If such an honourable, upstanding, straight arrow, good government supporter passionately dedicated to the rule of law like Pamela Jones could no longer believe that her privacy remained relatively safe using the internet and email, we are all in big trouble.

Pamela Jones - who calls herself PJ - introduced herself and her blog called Groklaw to me via email more than 10 years ago in early 2003 after I began covering the legal assault on Linux by a struggling former Linux distributor named Caldera. Caldera had bought a small and steadily declining x86 Unix operating system business from the Santa Cruz Operation (SCO), renamed itself SCO and thereafter filed a $1bn civil lawsuit against IBM, alleging primarily Unix copyright infringement by IBM in furtherance of its support for Linux.

I was of course thoroughly derisive about SCO's claims and chances of prevailing, but some of my copy at the time didn't conform to proper legal usage and PJ gently corrected me about it then, which I appreciated. We soon became friends via email, and I've considered her a friend ever since. So on one level this decision that PJ has been forced to make by intrusive government surveillance is a personal tragedy for someone I view as a good friend, although I've never met her in person. That's surely bad enough, but it's more significant than that.

The INQUIRER was the first general information technology (IT) news website to mention her excellent legal research on the SCO follies at Groklaw, and many other IT industry publications have followed Groklaw ever since.

Groklaw is - well, was - a collaborative legal education blog that taught software developers how the US legal system works and taught lawyers how software development works, especially for Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) that's licensed under the GNU General Public Licence (GPL) and other FOSS licences. It has been an invaluable resource for 10 years, and over the years it attracted a large following of readers and volunteer contributors. That's over now, evidently, but it's simply outrageous that PJ was forced to decide that she had to shut it down.

PJ concluded that she had to close Groklaw because rogue, lawless elements at the shadowy US National Security Agency (NSA) and elsewhere in the US government like the White House and US Department of Justice decided that the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution is a dead letter, that US citizens no longer have the right to privacy, and that committing journalism and peaceful citizen advocacy are tantamount to treason.

These stances are simply unconstitutional on their face, and therefore illegal and void, according to a number of landmark historical precedents established by US Supreme Court rulings consistently handed down throughout the history of the United States.

This must not be allowed to stand. Groklaw was a serious, immensely valuable forum and resource at the crucial nexus of information technology and the law that had an impact that was far out of proportion to its size. At one point during the SCO follies, SCO's crew of Salt Lake City sharpies and hangers-on in the press tried to claim that PJ didn't really exist, that her online persona was in fact a fictitious front for a large cadre of IBM lawyers.

That was of course ridiculous and it was quite funny at the time, but the claim reflected the positive impact that Groklaw was having against the propaganda campaign promoted by the SCO scamsters, their shady allies at a few ethically challenged proprietary software companies and certain disreputable members of the IT and Wall Street financial press.

PJ and all the members of Groklaw can be very proud of that, even though Groklaw itself, for now at least, is no longer in operation.


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