Creating the future

(Editor's Note: This guest post was written by Jay Stanley, public education director for the ACLU Technology and Liberty Program and co-chair of the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy 2009 conference, which is taking place June 1-4 in Washington, DC.)

Eighteen years is an eternity when you’re talking about technology. Back in 1991, the World Wide Web was just being introduced to the public, 3.5” floppy disks were state-of-the-art, and a couple guys named Larry and Sergey were mere teenagers. That was also the year of the very first Computers, Freedom, and Privacy (CFP) conference, which took place in Burlingame, California. Over time, it has become an evolving collection of activists, hackers, technologists, academics, government officials, and journalists, who gather every year in a different city to talk about technology and its often bewildering implications for our lives. In the early 1990s, participants ruminated over the future of the new “Information Superhighway," sought early word about cutting-edge policy and technology developments, and debated topics such as the Clipper Chip. The conference flourished along with the dot-com bubble through the turn of the century, and after 9/11, the conference became a vital forum for debate and insight into the Bush Administration’s surveillance and anti-terror policies.

Today, the 19th annual CFP conference kicks off in Washington, DC for four days of lively debate. It comes at what feels like a whole new chapter in our history. It’s a time of economic crisis, war, and continued alarm among technology liberty advocates about government policies. But there’s also a sense that historic new possibilities have opened up. This year’s theme, “Creating the Future,” is intended to capture not only discussion about the gee-whiz technologies on the horizon, but also a recognition that the policy decisions we make today will shape our lives for years to come. It also reflects a sense that the future is to be created through intelligent policymaking, and is not at the mercy of deterministic technological imperatives or invisible market forces.

Like the technology revolution that fuels it, the conference remains a vital and dynamic happening, and this year’s attendance is expected to be higher than it has been in years. Government attendees are back in force to mix it up with activists, and a number of innovations are being introduced (such as a research showcase and a “Geekshare”). You can check out this year’s full program right here. On Tuesday and Wednesday, we’ll also be welcoming participation from several representatives from Google, who will be speaking on panel discussions about topics such as censorship, privacy and online advertising, and reforming the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986 — an outdated law that still governs standards for government surveillance. ECPA may have originated several technology lifetimes ago. But the perpetual technology revolution rolls on, and the CFP conference remains one of the best places for figuring out what it means.