Online Activism’s Role in Stalling the FISA Warrentless Surveillance Bill

Glenn Greenwald has a fascinating piece in Salon today detailing the work that bloggers and other online organizers did both in public and behind the scenes to derail, at least temporarily, the the reauthorization bill for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Senator Chris Dodd placed a hold on the bill, which would in part provide legal immunity to telecommunications companies that cooperated with government electronic eavesdropping that civil libertarians contend is a violation of citizens’ basic rights. For the moment, it’s been pulled from the Senate floor. According to Greenwald, once the initial deal was announced that seemed to guarantee the bill’s passage, a hardcore cadre of activists began working at blitzkrieg speed to derail it:

At virtually the [same] time, there was an email exchange between a relatively small group of bloggers and a couple of representatives from grass-roots organizations in which the same idea arose: finding a Senator who would be willing to place a “hold” on the Rockefeller immunity bill. Earlier that morning, Big Tent Democrat had noted that Chris Dodd had issued a strongly worded statement against Jay Rockefeller’s bill, and he urged Dodd to announce he would lead a filibuster against the bill. Based on all of that, it was quickly recognized, both in comments and in that email group, that the obvious choice to target for a “hold” was Dodd, who had made constitutional and oversight issues the centerpiece of his presidential campaign.

Within literally a matter of minutes, numerous blogs began urging their readers to contact the Dodd campaign to ask Dodd to place a “hold” on any bill containing immunity. MoveOn sent out an email to its membership list urging the same. Blog readers and others then deluged the Dodd campaign by the thousands, tying up their telephones and overflowing their email boxes.

Without question, it was those efforts, spontaneously created and driven by blogs and their readers, which led directly to the principled stand Chris Dodd took yesterday in defense of the rule of law. This was not a process whereby some Beltway politician announced a campaign and then citizens fell into line behind it. The opposite occurred. The very idea for the “hold” originated among a few citizens, was almost immediately exploded into a virtual movement by tens of thousands of people, and was then made into a reality by a single political figure, Chris Dodd, responding to that passion by taking the lead on it.

I’ve been asked more than once by political veterans skeptical of the role of blogs and other forms of online citizen activism to point a specific instance in which the Internet made a real difference in a political issue. This sounds like one of them. Don’t believe Greenwald? Listen to Chris Dodd:

Who knows whether this setback for the Bush Administration and its allies on this issue is temporary or not, but it’s sure as hell an example of what ordinary citizens can do when they have the tools and the motivation to really push the system. Power to the people, my brothers and sisters.

Postscript: I wrote and published this piece while waiting to get my hair cut, poaching wifi from a neighboring coffeeshop. Public Internet access, from dream to pretty damn common reality in just a handful of years.


Written by
Colin Delany
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