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EFF reaches out to D.C. with new office

Electronic Frontier Foundation, which once ventured to Washington with mixed results, tries again.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the original digital rights group, is venturing inside the Beltway once again.

EFF has hired two attorneys experienced in suing the federal government under the Freedom of Information Act and plans to open an office in downtown Washington, D.C., on Aug. 1.

"There are a lot of meetings that we get invited to that we're not able to attend" because the nonprofit has its headquarters in San Francisco, said Shari Steele, EFF's executive director.

Marcia Hofmann Marcia Hofmann

One of EFF's new hires is expected to be Marcia Hofmann, staff counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, who has made headlines for suing the U.S. Justice Department and Homeland Security in an effort to document government wrongdoing and privacy invasions. A lawsuit currently in progress attempts to force the Bush administration to reveal documents about allegedly illegal surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency.

The other new hire is expected to be David Sobel, EPIC's general counsel and an FOIA litigator since 1982, who will work part-time. Sobel declined to discuss the move but did say that "the first Internet-related FOIA work I did was made possible by EFF"--a reference to the Sun Devil case that involved a Secret Service raid on Steve Jackson Games in 1990.

Opening an office inside the nation's capital comes as something of a surprise because EFF suffered an internal schism when it was based there in the early 1990s.

David Sobel David Sobel

When the FBI was pressing for the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) in 1994, other privacy groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and EPIC, remained steadfastly opposed to the measure. CALEA requires telecommunications companies to design their networks to be explicitly wiretap-friendly.

EFF Policy Director Jerry Berman, a longtime Washington hand, let EFF endorse what he described as a compromise proposal that was more privacy-sensitive. "A number of procedural safeguards are added which seek to minimize the threats to privacy, security and innovation," Berman told a House of Representatives panel in September 1994. (Twelve years later, CALEA is causing new headaches for broadband providers and Internet telephony services.)

Many of EFF's supporters viewed that as an example of an advocacy group that had been led astray by Washington, and the group moved to its current home of San Francisco the following year. Berman and EFF's policy arm left and created the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology.

"I don't anticipate that we're going to have the same kind of issues, which had a lot more to do with lobbying and Washington politics and compromising principles," EFF's Steele said this week. "I don't see any of that happening."

In the last few years, EFF has been busy on projects including opposing what the group calls overly restrictive copyright laws, advocating for free speech rights including in a case brought by Apple Computer, and suing AT&T over its alleged involvement with NSA surveillance. EFF's budget in 2003 was about $2 million, according to a CNET News.com report.