Let's start with one simple and rather sad truth: You are going to be less free next week than you were last week.
We are already seeing what several newspapers have called "the biggest criminal investigation in history." Sure, a lot of this investigation's energy is being focused on Islamic countries, but it is also going on in Europe and, more than anywhere else, the United States itself. Landlords who have rented to young men with Arab-sounding names are being interrogated. Topless-bar patrons are being asked about conversations they allegedly heard, boasting about upcoming mass destruction.
And then there's email and the World Wide Web. Imagine a technically unhip Senator or Member of Congress who has read about Osama bin Laden allegedly using encrypted email and secret messages hidden in online porn to communicate with his followers and allies. Put the words "Osama bin Laden" in the same sentence as "pornography" and "the Internet," and you had better get out of the way of the avalanche of anti-online privacy laws coming your way -- or get crushed by them, even if people like bin Laden can switch to other means of communication at the drop of a hat.
Worse, disagreeing with the U.S. government right now may almost be viewed as treason in some quarters. "My Country, Right or Wrong" was a popular bumper sticker among the gunrack-and-confederate-flag pickup truck crowd in the late 60s, and this attitude, if not yet the bumper sticker itself, has been making a major comeback
But Dissent We Must
The problem with the "My Country, Right or Wrong" attitude is that it allows our government to go terribly wrong in many ways that may not be made right again for a long time, if ever. As Rep. Rivers pointed out Saturday, once laws are made that are supposed to help law enforcement in some way, they are almost never repealed because Members of Congress don't want to be seen as "soft on terrorism, soft on crime, soft on drugs."
Carry this a little farther. What about treason charges? At what point does it become illegal to speak out against a planned US government action that, on its face, is being taken to fight against the Terrorist Enemy, whoever he or she may be, even though that action may have very bad, long-term consequences for ordinary American citizens who want nothing more that to live their own lives quietly without being afraid of their own government?
Rep. Rivers said half the people in her district's gut reaction to the idea of legislation allowing government to read their email without getting a warrant first was along the lines of, "So what? I don't break any laws, so I have nothing to hide."
Long-time EPIC activist Kathleen Ellis told Rep. Rivers she believed questions about privacy should not be asked in the context of email. "Ask people if they should have the right to keep a secret and almost all of them will answer 'Of course,'" she said. Ellis also mentioned that cryptography is the email equivalent of an envelope on a letter sent by postal mail. "Unencrypted email is like a postcard," she said, "open for anyone to read. Ask people if they want all mail to be as open as a postcard and they're going to say no."
From that point on, the meeting focused on tactics. The question in the room wasn't, "Are privacy and freedom of speech good?" but "What can we do to protect our privacy and freedom of speech?"
Background on the Meeting Itself
The forum in which all this discussion took place was decidedly unofficial. It was an informal meeting thrown together hastily by local Linux user and ham radio afficianado Rob Carlson. Carlson sent a meeting notice to several email lists and posted it at cluebot.com. 13 people showed up at Saturday's gathering, most of whom were Baltimore and Washington D.C. area privacy advocates and/or Linux users. I was there myself for that reason. Wired News reporter Declan McCullagh is another "local" who hangs in the same circles, which explained his presence.
Rep. Rivers was there because her husband, William Simpson, is a computer consultant involved with the Internet Engineering Task Force [IETF] who spotted Carlson's notice on one of the cryptography-oriented email lists he's on. He had driven Rivers' chief of staff, who needed to get back to Washington but was marooned in Michigan by the airlines shutdown, to D.C., and was taking his Congresswoman wife back to her district for a little rest and some scheduled meetings (Congress had adjourned until Friday, Sept. 21), and they noticed that UMBC was on their way. So there they were, not dressed in "mover and shaker" clothing but looking like anyone else taking a 1000+ mile car trip.
One doesn't usually think of a Member of Congress fitting in with a group of downdressed geeks, but this one sure did. We only knew what she did for a living because Carlson asked everyone in the little circle to identify themselves by name and job, and when it was her turn Rep. Rivers gave her name as "Lynn," then added "Rivers," and softly, sort of as an aside, mentioned that she was "in Congress." Her husband had already mentioned that they were "from Michigan," which was curious enough in itself for a meeting with a decidedly local orientation. But Linux folks are friendly, and Rep. Rivers was as welcome as anyone else even though she was from out of town -- and freely admitted she used Mac OS, not Linux, both at home and in her office.
When he organized the meeting, Carlson said, "I didn't know whether no one or 100 people would show up." 13 did. And revolutions have started with as few as 13 people, so why shouldn't a strong pro-Constitution lobbying movement? The next step is to get 13 more, and another 13, and so on. This means calling and emailing friends until there are 13X13X13X13.... people talking to their elected representatives about privacy issues in terms they can understand, that will help them change their minds.
How You Can Lobby Against Anti-Privacy Laws
Start with this line Rep. Rivers laid on us, which is not new but needs to be said over and over: "Democracy is not a spectator sport."
Those Americans who don't vote, no matter how they excuse this failure, have no right to criticize their government. And those who don't bother to tell their elected representatives what they want and don't want their government to do should not act shocked when the government passes laws they don't like. It gets sickening, going to hearing after hearing about proposed laws like UCITA, DMCA, and SSSCA and always seeing a whole bunch of industry lobbyists wearing expensive suits, but hardly ever anyone who could be classified as an "ordinary citizen."
You need to make some noise instead of letting "them" talk while you sit around and let "them" get their way. Pump up the volume. Take some of the time you spend posting on Slashdot and register to vote. Write email and snail mail letters, send faxes, and make phone calls to Congresspeople and Senators and other representatives, and tell other people (13X13X13X13.... voices, remember) to do the same. This, not just complaining, is what this whole representative government thing is all about.
Rep. Rivers says phone calls "...have a sense of personal contact to them," and this makes them the most effective grassroots lobbying tool. "Stick to one issue," she advises. "Don't come up with a laundry list."
Also send email and write letters, even though they probably won't have as much impact as calls. And don't forget the fax machine; reps who are too technically unhip to read email read faxes. The ACLU and NRA have both famously used fax as a means of rapid communication with legislators for many years.
Now comes the matter of what to say. A letter, call or email that starts with something like, "I has nevir voted for you I am not registered to vote but you got to lisen to me," will go nowhere, says Rivers, pointing out that many pro-Napster messages she got were along those lines -- and got ignored. Better, she says, is something that tells your representative you are a computer professional (or manager or student or business owner or whatever) whose business, occupation or future will be hurt by whatever legislation you are working against. In this case (this week), privacy and online crypto are under attack. Next week, who knows?
So you're not a business owner? Know any? Know anyone who depends on privacy to transact their business? How about your doctor? Doesn't he or she want to keep patient records confidential? Ditto any lawyer you know. If a lawyer is serious about maintaining client trust, he or she certainly doesn't want the government snooping on email through Carnivore or a similar system with a less aggressive name. Other businesses have client information they want to private, along with trade secrets and other information they would rather not share with competitors. These are all points to bring up rationally, in an orderly debate format, when communicating with an elected rep, and they are ones you should ask others to bring up, too.
Stay calm, in other words. Assume your representative is sane and really wants to do what's right and what most people want, based on the input he or she gets. Your trick is to become part of that input, and right now the input you need to give must be strong and focused because Congress is caught up in post-attack hysteria and, like the rest of us, is saying, "We need to do something to help those poor victims and their families and make sure nothing this awful ever happens again."
The only problem here is that what Congress does is make laws, not post on Slashdot, and a law made in the same emotional heat as a flame post on Slashdot can't be moderated down to -1 after it is passed. Once that law is on the books, if you break it you can be arrested, tried, and fined or sent to jail. You've heard the saying, "If [guns/crypto/brains] are outlawed, only outlaws will have [guns/crypto/brains]." It's true, you know.
Right now, legitimate Americans are in danger of having many of their Constitutional freedoms revoked by a government that is doing its best, possibly in a misguided way, to protect its citizens. This is not about Disney's copyrights or the freedom to play DVDs on computers running Linux. The current debate is about much more basic issues than those, issues I will not repeat here because they have been written about so extensively elsewhere.
An Aside: How Congress Works
Rep. Rivers said it this way: "The House [of Representatives] is ruled by brute force."
Since she was talking to geeks who follow such things, she used the DMCA as an example. She told us that the "unanimous" vote that got DMCA through the House was not really unanimous at all; that the bill got through a committee dominated by a powerful chairman (which is how bills generally get to the floor for a vote) and that the Speaker called for a voice vote. "Most yelled 'Aye,'" Rivers said, and some yelled 'Nay.'"
The voices yelling "Aye" were the loudest, so DMCA passed by acclamation. Brute Force. People yelling at the top of their lungs. If 50 loud voices had yelled "Nay" instead of "Aye," perhaps we wouldn't have the DMCA as law today, and the EFF wouldn't be begging for money to get it overturned in the courts.
Now think about a Member of Congress who is hearing, right now, from all the "Kill-the-Arab-bastards-and-stamp-out-Internet-porn" crowd loudly and repeatedly by phone, fax, mail and email, but isn't hearing from you. Who is shouting the loudest? Which wheel is so squeaky that it is going to get the grease? So far, it's not the voices of reason and Constitutionality. They are getting drowned out. Heck, they are hardly there at all. At least Rep. Rivers isn't hearing them, and if she isn't hearing them -- with her ear attuned to Internet privacy matters and a totally Net-hip husband at her side -- you can bet the rest of Congress don't even know those voices (yours) exist.
Don't Delay! Do It Today!
Congress reconvenes Friday, September 21. The anti-privacy bills and anti-privacy amendments to various anti-terrorist bills are being written now, not someday. This means you must act immediately. If you put off those calls and emails to friends asking them to help support their right to communicate with each other in private, and to live without fear of police breaking down their doors or seizing their computer hard drives without warrants for even a few days, it is going to be too late. We are in the grip of national hysteria. A $40 billion appropriations bill to support the war on terrorism was passed a few days ago, with bipartisan support, almost without debate.
I'm going to admit that I am as ready to kick terrorist butt as anyone else, so I can't really blame Congress for being so gung-ho that it will pass all kinds of measures that will make America a less free country for decades to come in response to the current emergency. All I'm really asking Congress to do -- and asking you to join me in asking Congress to do, and to convince 13X13X13.... others to ask your Representative and your Senator to do -- is remember that the freedoms that make this country great must not be forgotten in our rush to avenge our fallen fellow Americans and our attempts to keep ourselves safe from future terrorist attacks.
Specifically (concentrate on one issue, remember), as a Net user I am concerned about watching our online privacy and freedoms evaporate if the government makes strong cryptography illegal or tries to have it controlled by agencies like the NSA, CIA, and FBI, or starts reading all of our private email without due cause and legitimate judicial warrants.
The deadline is Friday. That's when the legislative fur will start to fly. So let's get to work now!