2021 ended up being a time where we dug into our new realities of distributed work and the ever-changing COVID news. At the same time, news continued to come fast and furious, with the events of one week often obliterating memories of the week before. So it’s helpful for all of us to look back at the last year and remember just what we accomplished. Looking at what we did—at what you, our supporters, helped us do—we can be confident that whatever changes continue to roll in, we will continue our vital work.
We’re thankful for our roughly 38,000 members who not only support us financially but spring into action whenever it’s needed. It allowed us to build on what we did in 2020, to meet the new challenges brought by this new era.
Our biggest action this year was a powerful pushback against Apple when it announced that it was reneging on its promise to provide us with secure devices. In the summer, Apple announced it would be scanning some images on our devices in a poorly-conceived strategy aimed at child safety. With 25,000 of your signatures, we delivered a single, simple message to Apple: don’t scan our phones. We sponsored a protest at Apple stores and an alternative event to make sure that Apple heard from those, especially children, who have first-hand experience with the real dangers of device insecurity. We even flew a plane over Apple’s headquarters during its major product launch to make sure its employees and executives got our message. Our message was received. Apple first delayed and then agreed not to scan iMessage and send notifications to parents. This was a first victory, but a big one, and it was only made possible by your contributions. Of course, we’ll keep pushing until all your devices are secure and answer only to you.
We also stood up with parents and students against the increased surveillance of students. This year, Dartmouth accused medical students of cheating based on a flawed understanding of how technology works. Our experts dug into the data and showed that what looked like cheating was just applications working as they should. After first doubling down and also instituting a policy preventing students from speaking out on social media, news coverage fueled by EFF’s technical and activism work finally convinced Dartmouth to admit its error and drop its allegations. We also brought litigation to protect a student who faced copyright claims after demonstrating the extent of surveillance conducted by student surveillance company Proctorio.
We also continued our work to hold police responsible for illegally spying on protestors. In fall, EFF and the ACLU, representing three activists of color, asked the court to declare without a trial that the San Francisco Police Department had violated the law. Documents and testimony gathered by EFF in 2021 proved that, as our 2020 investigation had theorized, the police had accessed a local business district’s security cameras during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. However, San Francisco law prohibits the use of any surveillance tech by city departments like the police without approval from the Board of Supervisors. By accessing these cameras without that permission, the police violated the law. EFF also partnered with the ACLU to challenge Marin County for sharing Automated License Plate Reader information with ICE and the CPB.
2021 wasn’t entirely a year about surveillance. In March, EFF urged the Supreme Court to rule that when students post on social media or speak out online while off campus, they are protected from punishment by school officials under the First Amendment—an important free speech principle amid the increasing surveillance of students’ online activities outside the classroom. In September, we were victorious: the Court held that public high school officials violated a student’s First Amendment rights when they suspended her from cheerleading for posting a vulgar Snapchat selfie over the weekend and off school grounds (yes, this is the infamous “fuck cheer” case). We also stood up against efforts in Texas and Florida to require platforms to host speech they do not want to host.
We also continued our focus on breaking the internet out of the grip of the five tech giants. After analyzing and giving feedback to Congress on a package of antitrust reform bills, those bills moved forward after a marathon hearing in the House Judiciary Committee. And we didn’t just do work in the U.S. We also worked tirelessly to reform the EU’s Digital Markets Act so it would create actual competition in the online marketplace. Also related to standing up to the tech giants, after much international consultation and feedback, we updated the Santa Clara Principles on Transparency and Accountability in Content Moderation to better match the global landscape and current issues with regard to the platforms that host so much of our speech. Finally, on a state and federal level, we pushed for, and successfully obtained, much more governmental support for universal, affordable, high-speed internet access.
Even with all of those things listed, we’re leaving much out. Season 2 of our podcast premiered. We published papers on interoperability and on the future of high-speed internet in the United States. That, in addition to countless briefs filed, testimony given to legislators, and activism campaigns launched. Please consider joining EFF. None of this is possible without our supporters.
EFF has an annual tradition of writing several blog posts on what we’ve accomplished this year, what we’ve learned, and where we have more to do. We will update this page with new stories about digital rights in 2021 every day between now and New Year’s Day.
2021 in Review Articles:
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Author Of this post: Cindy Cohn