As connectivity continues to increase globally, more people than ever live in a ubiquitous and nonstop media environment. In light of these changes, the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s work has never been more important. Founded four years ago after the exposure of government collusion to create a financial blockade against Wikileaks, the Freedom of the Press Foundation develops tools and processes to advocate for journalists to fight against censorship to call for more transparency and accountability in both government and media.
From technical tools that allow news organizations to support the privacy and security of their sources to their public work for a more engaged and political press, the Freedom of the Press Foundation has received international acclaim for their important work in both disrupting and supporting both traditional and alternative journalism.
Trevor Timm is the co-founder and executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. Learn more about how you can support their work at their website.
How does the Freedom of the Press Foundation work to create a more equitable world? How can openness drive significant change both in the press and the work of your organization?
Our overarching mission is to protect and defend journalism that’s dedicated to transparency and accountability. A lot of that work revolves around government transparency and wanting to help journalists and whistleblowers connect in a more secure environment so that information that the public should know but the government’s keeping secret can eventually become public and we can force a more open and transparent government.
This happens in a variety of ways. We advocate for reforms to the Freedom of Information Act. We build tools like visual security tools to help journalists and sources communicate securely. We train journalists how to use encryption tools in the newsroom and we have a variety of lawsuits going on right now dealing with government transparency.
When you say “government transparency” do you mean specifically in the realm of journalism or do you work for transparency in other realms as well?
We certainly focus on [other forms of transparency]. For example, our two lawsuits right now involve transparency as relates to journalists specifically, but what we want to do is facilitate journalists to make government more transparent across different fields. While our specialty area definitely involves journalists themselves, the idea is that journalists are often the conduit for accountability inside government whether we’re talking about the environment or civil rights or healthcare. We want to make sure that journalists can do their job without interference to the best of their abilities.
You work a lot with encryption and privacy tools. How can organizations that are concerned with transparency be transparent and also work smart in terms of privacy and encryption?
There are a few cases where privacy rights and free speech rights collide and these are difficult questions that I think a lot of people have strong opinions on. When we’re talking about the government, I think that they are held to a higher standard of openness than private citizens.
We are generally in favor of strong privacy rights for private individuals, especially vis a vis the government, but when we’re talking about government officials it’s different. The apt term is the difference between secrecy and privacy. Government officials essentially work for the public and so they should be transparent as possible about what they’re doing behind closed doors. Unfortunately, a lot of officials in the United States government have an opposite view—that it’s okay to violate the privacy of private citizens but it’s okay for the government to keep information secret.
The biggest display of this is in the past few years has of course been the Snowden revelations. Edward Snowden worked with reporters to expose a government mass surveillance system that essentially nobody outside of government knew about. This meant that the government was essentially vacuuming up all sorts of information from private citizens yet keeping this information completely secret. We think that principal should be flipped on its head. That its the private citizens that deserve privacy and it’s the government that should be much more transparent about what they’re doing.
At Creative Commons, one of our tenets is to work open and to work transparent. How can open organizations support your work in privacy and encryption for journalists and for publishing and for creation?
The principles of openness are embedded in everything we do.
For example, our high profile work on SecureDrop, which is essentially a document submission system for news organizations that allows sources to securely send them documents and information. All of our tools are completely open source and free software. We think when you’re talking about security tools it’s incredibly important for the code to be completely open so that other outside experts can make sure that the tools are actually living up to their promises.
For us, Creative Commons licenses are incredibly important for the advocacy we do as well. All of our blog posts are licensed with Creative Commons licenses by default and it allows us to be able to get our message out a lot more broadly because different websites are allowed to essentially repost everything that we post on our website. CC allows our message to spread farther and we’re not losing anything by doing so.
When it comes to copyright and censorship, oftentimes we see ourselves as an advocate for news organizations to be more open licensed as well. Copyright claims can often lead to censorship in a lot of cases when information is clearly newsworthy and should be shared as widely as possible. While Creative Commons and Freedom of the Press Foundation are working on two different tracks, we certainly see those tracks as parallel.
How do you feel like other journalists and media outlets could use CC in their work?
I think especially for non-profit news organizations, which there are more and more of these days, it’s more important for them to have their stories be read as widely as possible than it is for them to get clicks on a particular website.
By licensing stories with CC licenses, this is an incredible way to have your stories published on many more platforms and also retain the recognition and respect you get for producing journalism in this way.
I’m not sure how much news organizations think about this. Unfortunately, a lot of news organizations and their lawyers are often maximalist when they think about copyright solely because that’s the only way that they’ve ever done things. I hope that with more news organization’s disrupting the space that people will see that being copyright maximalists can actually be a detriment and not necessarily a help to getting the word out about the work.
Switching gears a bit, one aspect of the Freedom of the Press Foundation that’s particularly interesting is how you utilize crowd’s funding in your work to support other organizations. Do you feel like this model is extensible to other non-profits and do you feel like other non-profits can support each other in this way? How do you balance your own funding needs in conjunction with supporting other organizations?
That’s a really good question. I don’t think that crowdfunding is necessarily a long-term answer for sustaining news organizations that may employ dozens of people.
I think it is a great way to (excuse the expression,) kick start an organization that may not have a lot of notoriety. It can give new organizations seed funding to get themselves on their feet and be the spark for growth in the future. But it is, quite honestly, very expensive to run a news organization, and crowdfunding can certainly be a supplement to a lot of what they do. But ultimately to be sustainable, other sources of funding are certainly needed, unless you’re talking about an organization that only has a handful of people working for it. I’m certainly a big believer in crowdfunding, but I don’t think it’s the be all end all for solving monetary woes inside news organizations.
How do you work both within and outside traditional journalism by crafting tools that are used by mainstream media while still supporting an active and engaged alternative media?
I think it’s an important balance to strike. We are huge fans of independent media and non-profit media.
There needs to be more voices that can be heard by millions and millions of people and the only way for that to happen is to get their name out there and have ordinary people show their support.
But on the other hand, as many problems as I have with legacy news organizations, a lot of them still do important work. I can list ten criticisms of The New York Times or The Washington Post, yet there are dozens and dozens of journalists who work at both those papers who are among the best journalists in the world and that the public would be much poorer off if they didn’t exist. When we’re talking about defending reporters’ rights, we want to make sure that we’re defending the rights of journalists at The New York Times and The Washington Post, but we will also want to make sure that we are defending the rights of independent media, individual bloggers, citizen journalists, and any organization that crops up that some people may be uncomfortable with, but that their rights are still protected as much as the most mainstream outlet out there.