My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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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 [1]. 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: [1] [2] [3]

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::

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16 comments to FISA, Obama, and the Internet People

  • I agree with your concern – sounds like entropy – it’s much easier to get behind a few words in a large shiny font than to take the time to get informed. A pessimist might say that the blog information revolution is giving way to shorter update soundbite feeds like twitter or facebook; perhaps the (distraction of the) sheer bulk of information available prevents people from sitting back and reading through to the last line?

    Potential is not action.

  • I say we all flood our emails, IMs, phone calls and text messages with “EXPLETIVE the U.S. government” and see what rains down.

    Essentially, we widen the 2nd Amendment and destroy the 4th?! Alright, I’m apply for a gun permit and hunkering down like a patriot should.

  • A lot of links explaining why the FISA legisation matters can be found in the post linked below. The last paragraph links to several sources explaining why it was important. The post is called Senate Prepares For FISA Capitulation and can be found at http://www.billslinksandmore.com/Billsblog/2008/07/08/senate-prepares-for-fisa-capitulation/

    More information regarding FISA can also be found in the blog.

  • no doubt about it, the FISA legislation – and all its recent changes – is a an incredibly complex piece of law. frankly, one of the reasons that i’ve been so appalled by congress’s capitulation to the demands of this administration concerning FISA is that i fear that few of the legislators actually have a decent grasp of what it all means.

    the little that i’ve learned has been from these sources. on the latest iteration, these are some excellent and informative blog posts.

    item-by-item legal break down:
    http://balkin.blogspot.com/2008/06/guide-to-new-fisa-bill-part-iii.html

    item-by-item rebuttal to Obama’s response:
    http://utdocuments.blogspot.com/2008/07/obamas-new-statement-on-fisa.html

  • The reason why the government is overstepping here is because the average voter holds the President and their congressman directly responsible when some nut on a plane tries to light his shoe on fire.

  • It does appear that Obama is selling out on some principled stuff here. I’m also not happy with campaign finance reform changes.

  • Of course, another interesting case-study with a recent online “community” “public hissy fit” of the highest order was the BoingBoing/Violet Blue cluster-fuck.

    I’d be curious to read your analysis of how that blew up and opinion on how online communitites (should we start just calling them “networks”?) feel so over-attached, daresay co-dependent, with the human, at times imperfect, fearless leaders of their insecure-ego-driven digital “connection” websites.

  • s

    It all makes me so indescribably angry… even worse, I think, because I am here in DC. I don’t know that I go as far as Lessig does on the negative role that FISA will have but I certainly am happy to match anyone in the ACLU or anywhere else when it comes to my anger on this topic. Just not angry because of it as an individual case, or as a complement to the similar treading on other amendments Obama has been more supportive of recently, but because of the way 527s can brand it, the way I see it, and the blatant renunciation of a very recent vow to oppose this kind of legislation — to filibuster it, in fact — not to mention to stand up for his own principles and something that most of america does not want.

    He doesn’t need telecom money and this isn’t the best way to pander like some blue dog with his tail between his legs looking to be strong on national security. it is completely nauseating to me not just what he has done and what it spelled (for that was inevitably known, more or less) but at the completely shameful way our so-called new progressive dem leadership just kowtows to the bush administration on this ‘good compromise’ — it just makes me so, so, so upset danah. this and other less egregious things are part of what convinces me I don’t have the will to put up with the gut wrenching frustration of this town from within. have to find something new and more powerful to look forward to. sigh. sorry, /rant

    :(

    how are things out west? watch out for forest fires! or is that only northern cali? are you still coming to DC? did I miss you when you already did?

    let me know if you have anything you’d like me to have a look at, would love to. alternately, if you have any reading suggestions let me know, I have ~1000$ in amazon gift card that is burning a hole in my pocket.

  • (Hi, long-time reader of your blog and your work…)

    As someone who has been part of Get FISA Right, re: motivation and information —

    My initial reaction is that we *do* have information out there. We have a whole wiki full, and a lot of time and energy went into not just that “resources” page, but the whole wiki itself. I think we tried to make sure people weren’t just writing and calling their Senators, but knew something about the issue.

    But I’m not sure all that info mattered, because that wasn’t the driver. I think the reason people were so motivated on this was because (a) Obama previously said he was against telecom immunity and it’s a blatant contradiction, and even more importantly, (b) this completely undercuts what he said was going to be an era of a “different kind of politics.”

    I’m not suggesting we don’t need dialog and good information about complicated issues like FISA. I just think the reaction and the mobilization we saw happen around the Get FISA Right movement was more about Obama and the vision of politics he articulated than anything having to do with the details of the FISA law itself. That was the information to which people were reacting; not the bill.

  • Tim

    I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says, but Larry Lessig has (as usual) some very insightful commentary:

    http://lessig.org/blog/2008/07/the_immunity_hysteria.html

  • Thanks for a good summation. Yeah, I’m really dismayed that Obama’s doing this; I gather, as ever, he’s being canny; whether it’s the money so much as, he doesn’t want to go against the tide just to take a stand because he’s calculating he can’t win, and the spin the McCain people’ll put on it would hurt him more than the increasingly peeved and cynical base who, once again, feel sold out, because, hay, over a barrel again.

    He’s Bill Clinton II, is what it is. Possibly without the bad habit of getting caught with his pants down. And ironically enough, considering he beat out Bill’s wife–but yeah: charisma, cagey, political to the bone, it’ll get him in office and it will not be the Great Awakening people are hoping for, no. As always: “he beats the alternative.” And away we go again.

  • I don’t think this phenomenon is unique to online activism. When I was a student, I once attended a protest where the crowd was persuaded to march across campus to protest a completely different issue.

    So, there are people willing to take action, blindly, as long as the issue can be characterized in terms of the broad narratives they identify with. Political organizers, on the left or right, would be fools if they didn’t exploit this.

    I once had an argument with such an organizer who conceded that most of the protesters she had attracted to her demo didn’t really understand the issue, but that was the way things worked — not everyone had the brain for it. For her, it was still a good thing that the community trusted its leaders.

    There’s also another reason for organizers to limit the available data; it herds people towards the desired response(s). If Obama fans knew the ins and outs of the issue, they might either agree with the “enemy”, or even come up with their own opinion of what Obama should have done. Organizers would greatly prefer unanimous outrage calling for a single specific action, even if those making the demands don’t really get what’s going on. This is just the general problem of American democracy, in the small.

  • “a lot of mobilization without a lot of articulate information, dialogue, or debate”

    Unfortunately, this is what I feel like most internet efforts at politics are like.

  • Steve

    A few quick points.

    I’ve always thought Obama was a shell without substance, so this latest flip-flop comes as no great surprise. Barring the unlikely long shot that (1) groups like PUMA and the Denver Group might still force an open convention and that (2) enough superdelegates might break for Hillary that she could prevail I’m toughening up for the distasteful prospect of voting for McCain. True, I’m against almost everything he believes in – but at least he actually believes in something.

    The combination of ignorance and enthusiam mentioned in the anti-FISA campaign is genuinely scary. I don’t think I’m exaggerating at all when I say that this is the raw material fascist movements spring from. This time, it happened that the howling mobs were on my side of the issue. Why am I not reassured?

    Neil said –

    “So, there are people willing to take action, blindly, as long as the issue can be characterized in terms of the broad narratives they identify with. Political organizers, on the left or right, would be fools if they didn’t exploit this.”

    I would say, to the contrary, they are fools when they do exploit it – or worse than fools. Every time you pander to ignorance to get support for your issue, you, by that act, are confirming the politics of ignorance as business as usual.

    If any of these “organizers” had a genuine concern for the future, for the nation, for the world, for their children (or their generation’s children), they would try to make fools wise rather than exploit their foolishness.

    Just a thought,
    -Steve

  • Am I the only person who’s disillusioned enough with this to want to vote third party?

    To think we had a progressive candidate for once: http://tinyurl.com/5w9w9v

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