Users' groups must go to bat for their users
The traditional users' group has largely been a semi-informal, unstructured gathering of users of some particular technological or electronic development, particularly those developments which are computer-based or oriented. The earliest users' groups, and many current users' groups, meet in real life and real time on a scheduled basis for various discussions, ranging from the small talk and chit-chat variety to the full-scale slideshow presentations to audiences of various ages (usually of a predominately-male persuasion). They include members of various related professions, hobbies and affinities, ranging from the users who see their computers as being a little bit more than just appliances for their day-to-day activities to the users who modify the software, firmware and hardware to fit their own particular, previously-unfulfilled needs and ends; many actively participate in the market with their own skills, or make their creations open and available for the purpose of their unfettered peer distribution, modification and commercialization.
Thus, while the users' group model has increasingly shifted to web-based forums, mailing lists, blogs, chatrooms, wikis, imageboards and torrent trackers, it retains a chronic lack of structure beyond the enjoyment of discussion and usage. Worse, faces are lacking when one wants to place them with the names of user-members, a mutual and predominating anonymity which was less prevalent in the traditional offline users' groups. And when trying financial or legal times are visited upon the individual participants, the rate of progression from fear, resistance and self-expense to success, survival, victory and recovery is wildly variant over a period of time.
The most successful of such online users' groups have been free and open source software-centric communities, as many such groups have received substantial financial backing and legal successes throughout the history of the free software community, and have also rallied around their programmer-users for leadership (as, by nature, the FOSS programmer is mostly creating the software for his or her own use or that of his or her close colleagues). By contrast, the weakest and most ill-fortuned of such online users' groups have been the peer-to-peer file-sharing communities, as the users in such communities have relied less upon programmers and more upon business and website owners for leadership (with a secondary reliance upon programmers for the further empowerment of such users); such owners, as well as the users of their services, are usually severely punished and stripped of wealth in court for copyright infringement or enablement of such action.
So why is there such a sharp discrepancy in success, support and survival between these two types of users' groups? Why are users who program computers receiving greater respect and support than users who share files? They are both exercising freedoms which are enabled through technological conduits, and both are benefiting their fellow peers on a mostly non-commercial basis.
Shouldn't there be, on the part of file-sharers, a greater sense of solidarity and community comparable to that of the free software programmers and enthusiasts? What holds them back from the successful defense of their activity which so frequently eludes them when they testify on the bench? Why is there no greater level of militancy from the file-sharing communities - or is there any existing sense of any such thing as a file-sharing user "community", such which would be required for any hypothetical file-sharing "users' group", even within the few private, exclusive, invite-only BitTorrent tracker indexes?
But file-sharers and hobbyist programmers, it is assumed, will become only two subsets of an increasingly diverse audience of major users' interests as computing technology advances further to assume many more user-empowering roles. To defend and advance the interests of these users, users' groups will likely need to evolve and organize in their range of activity, capability, and resiliency in the face of virulent legal opposition from other interests groups, such as trade associations and employers' associations. Perhaps it is time for users' groups to meet offline, take a cue from the trade unions, and formally organize into large, visible defense entities for the expansion of their legal rights and the reform of intellectual property law.
Such organizations, it is envisioned, will develop more proactive, more physical activities and approaches against the anti-user actions of trade and employer associations. Strikes, consumer boycotts and shareholder protests have often been organized by their respective progenitor organizations against corporate situations which were characterized as being against their own interests; thus, some unique, but effective brand of tangible users' protest must be assumed by users' groups against trade and employers' associations, a protest which can bring the trade association to the negotiating table with the users' group for the formulation of more lasting peaces between the users (paying or non-paying) and the trade associations.
Website defacement is a frequent, but mostly-ineffective form of such protests, and need to be supplemented with more effective protests of a direct, in-your-face nature. In the case of the AACS encryption key controversy, irked users protested by not just modifying the appearance of the Digg website through repeated and continuous postings of the encryption key, but also posted the key just as continuously to other websites so as to shame the company which had demanded that Digg remove an initial story which had contained the pivotal string of characters; such an action, one which spread through multiple websites so as to elude the company's grasp, is slightly more substantial.
A potentially-violent, unlawful and backfiring approach, one which is most associated with militant organizations like the Earth Liberation Front, could posit the argument that if "one cannot use a product in freedom, then no one will use that product at all", perhaps supplemented by the active, unilateral hindrance or disabling of brick-and-mortar distribution of media produced by members of particular trade associations through direct action. I do not advise this "aggravated direct starvation" approach, and would, at most, suggest a consumer picket line, or a users' group derivation thereof.
Either way, by shame or by starvation, users' groups must assume a greater mandate of mutual defense for the users of particular technologies, and must raise the expectations of users concerning the companies and trade associations which often take anti-user approaches for the sake of protecting their intellectual property monopolies. Whether they are casual users or hobbyists or hackers or copysharers, they are all users who may care about the brand or the ideology or the functionality, but are all united by a common cause of the freedom and education of usage, and the protection of such freedoms.