Last night, I’m sure many hardworking privacy activists in the US poured a stiff drink after the Senate voted not to advance the USA Freedom Act, a bill intended to to reform some aspects of the US surveillance state. Personally, I was relieved.
As the campaign director of an organisation that’s been fighting government data collection since before anyone had heard the name Edward Snowden, I have a little bit of insight into why the USA Freedom Act was narrowly defeated last night. Spoiler: It wasn’t ISIS. It wasn’t Republican hawkishness. It wasn’t even the Democrat’s cowardice.
The USA Freedom Act failed because it was a weak reform bill that didn’t accomplish enough good to excite a grassroots base that would fight for it and ensure victory.
You don’t have to be a political junkie or a policy wonk to know that getting a good law passed in this US Congress is nigh on impossible. The victories we have won for internet freedom and other causes have been hard fought, and have always required a mass movement of active and engaged people working together toward a common goal.
In the months after Edward Snowden exposed the extent of our government’s surveillance apparatus, a powerful movement grew with a clear demand: end mass government surveillance; privacy is a human right.
Millions of people took action online; thousands more protested in Washington DC, and at demonstrations around the world. My inbox was flooded with questions from Fight for the Future members asking me how they could best join the fight to end the spying.
On 5 June, the anniversary of the first news story based on Snowden’s whistleblowing, we organised Reset the Net, a direct action campaign to encrypt as much of the web as possible, making mass surveillance more difficult and expensive. Tens of thousands of websites participated, including the most popular sites on the web, and the campaign reached millions of people. The momentum was palpable.
But this week, as the USA Freedom Act headed to a vote, no websites displayed banners, no one rallied in the streets, and the only emails I got from my members were to warn me about a rumour that Harry Reid intended to attach a provision from the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) as an amendment to the bill.
The fact is, while many privacy organisations gave qualified support for the USA Freedom Act, and had well reasoned explanations why, the general public was not impressed. The bill was weak to begin with. It only targeted a small portion of the types of surveillance we know the NSA and other agencies are conducting. And it had been so badly watered down since its introduction that, for an internet public whose trust had been violated in the worst way, common sense told people not to trust it.
It wasn’t just tinfoil-hat wearing 4chan users that were sceptical. A surveillance expert whose blog has been the centre of analysis of surveillance reform has been raising very concerning questions about language in the bill for months that none of the NGOs supporting USA Freedom have been able to address. A group of former NSA whistle-blowers, who know the NSA’s internal culture better than any policy experts, came out in opposition to the House version of the bill. Even the NGO community was split; several groups felt it didn’t go nearly far enough, and were concerned that this bill would have reauthorised portions of the Patriot Act that are set to expire in 2015, and which we have a real chance of defeating forever, if we can rally public support.
Finally, many people, and privacy groups outside the US, raised concerns that this bill did next to nothing to protect the rights of non-US citizens, which disillusioned another powerful group of potential allies.
The prevailing narrative among primarily DC-based civil liberties organisations is that we have to take what we can get, and USA Freedom Act was the only bicycle that we could ride. But history shows that when you compromise too early, you always lose. The public wants an end to mass government surveillance, but this bill wasn’t that, so there was little public support for the organisations working to get it passed.
Don’t believe the headlines today that say “Congress rejects NSA reform.” That’s not what happened. What happened is that the internet-using public rejected a weak bill and refused to turn out to support it. Let it be a lesson: stick to your guns if you want to keep your army. The movement is still here and we still want the same thing; an end to all forms of mass surveillance.