FISA, Obama, and the Internet People
FISA (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) is a thorny piece of legislation. It started out relatively sane back in the 70s, but in a post-9/11 culture, it got all FUBARed. It was amended by the PATRIOT Act and then there was a revision done called the Protect America Act (gotta love the naming here, right?) Well, this last bit expired and there’s a new amendment act that’s pending in Congress (and likely to pass today).
The biggest problem with this piece of legislation is that it would provide immunity for the big Telcos against all sorts of lawsuits where they’re being sued for violating people’s privacy. (Think: warrantless wiretapping, AT&T turning over all customer records, etc.) The rest of the legislation is rather murky but it’s set in a political landscape where there is good reason to question governmental decisions wrt surveillance. There are good reasons to provide adequate tools for intelligence, but one must raise their eyebrows when private enterprises are getting immunity for breaking the law at the request of the government.
So, Obama was initially against this piece of legislation. For some combination of political reasons that I’ve lost track of, he’s compromised and is backing the new FISA extension while just verbally lamenting the immunity provisions . Well, folks are pretty pissed. Tens of thousands signed up for a Group on MyBarackObama called Senator Obama – Please Vote NO on Telecom Immunity – Get FISA Right, following a Facebook-style protest. This type of digital collective action is piquing the interest of all sorts of folks, including those behind the Personal Democracy Forum. Micah Sifry’s analysis is a must read and there are other good ones there:   
As fans were throwing more and more public hissy fits, Obama was forced to respond. Members of his staff posted his response to their blog and took comments, resulting in an onslaught (more than 600 comments in 90 minutes). Obama tried to defend himself and what it means to make unpopular decisions to compromise.
It’s not likely to do any good. Obama is going to vote for this piece of legislation and, even if he doesn’t, all of the Republican Senators and most of the Democrats will. (And any moment now…) Still, what I find fascinating is how many people have gotten up in arms about this. FISA is not the kind of legislation that most people get their heads around. Yet, I talked to all sorts of folks in the last week and while they had no idea what FISA was, they thought that it was bad and were worried that Obama was backing it. They had heard about FISA through the collective mobilization efforts. They may not have seen or signed the Care2 Petition or the Night of Facebook Action or the Facebook group or the Get FISA Right website, but they’d heard about the rumblings even though the media coverage has been downright lousy. They had a sense that there was a disconnect. More importantly, folks felt empowered to speak back and they were able to raise their voices loud enough to demand a response. Even if that response wasn’t what they hoped for, that’s still fascinating.
As I watch this unfold, I’m both in awe of the collective mobilization efforts and utterly confused about the actual dialogue. I still can’t figure out why Obama is backing FISA (and “compromise” isn’t a reason). I don’t understand why Congress thinks it’s so important to pass this bill even with the immunity provisions. Every “Get FISA Right” website, petition, and call to action tells me to encourage my Senators to stop FISA without telling me anything about FISA other than the immunity provision. Only Wikipedia is articulating the provisions. There are more in-depth discussions, like Tim Ferriss’ interview with Daniel Ellsberg, but they are few and far between. So I find it interesting that there’s a lot of mobilization without a lot of articulate information, dialogue, or debate. Even the politicians seem to be avoiding getting into the details.
As we think about the role of the Internet People in political actions, I can’t help but wonder what it means that there’s more mobilization than information. The conversation seems to circle around “compromise” rather than focus on the dynamics of the provisions and the logic behind them. This seems quite odd to me.
PS: In a tangential, but related political reality check, the Telcos are now suing cities that have decided to provide Internet access as a public good. So on one hand, the government is providing immunity to Telcos and, on the other, the Telcos are now suing to stop the government from serving the people. Gotta love it.
Update: Moments after posting this, the NYTimes reported FISA passed. Obama voted for the bill. Attempts to eradicate the immunity provisions failed. And, much to my irritation, the age old privacy myth was voiced by Senator Bond who said there was nothing to fear in the bill “unless you have Al Qaeda on your speed dial.” ::grumble::grumble::