One Way To Stand Against Spying: Meet With A Legislator

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This story by activist April Glaser was published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation on Aug. 5. 

The National Security Agency pulls no punches when it comes to the surveillance of innocent people in every corner of the world in its attempt to “collect it all.” Those in the U.S. prepared to vigorously oppose mass government spying need to fight back and hold our representatives to account for the routine human rights violations perpetrated by the NSA. And this activism needs to occur on all levels, from lobbying local and State officials to setting up meetings with Congress members.

That’s part of the inspiration behind StandAgainstSpying.org, a tool that grades members of Congress on their track record in the fight against unConstitutional mass surveillance and the protection of the basic human right to privacy. Congress is in recess for the month of August, so right now is an ideal time to schedule a visit in-district.

Yet elected officials rarely hear from the diverse communities of everyday people who live under the shadow of government surveillance — that includes every American. That’s why the Electronic Frontier Foundation is encouraging people to visit their Congressional office and local representatives to make sure they know beyond a shadow of a doubt that their constituents demand meaningful NSA reform. After all, our political leaders are supposed to be working for us.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced the new USA FREEDOM Act S. 2685 in the Senate at the end of July. It’s likely to come up for a vote in September. That means that for the next month activists and concerned citizens need to flood the offices of our Senators and make sure they hear us loud and clear: Now is the time to pass this critically important bill that will work rein in the NSA’s illegal mass spying and help to restore justice in the secret FISA court.

To help with lobbying visits to local Congressional offices, EFF made a handy one-page guide on the USA FREEDOM Act that you can leave with the staff person you meet with at your elected representative’s office.

Lobby For Digital Rights

Lobbying — whether you’re a concerned citizen or a representative of an interest group — boils down to building relationships. Usually, these relationships are with staff members or, if at the local level, sometimes with elected officials directly.

Citizen lobbying can be a powerful tool for driving a vision for reform, especially when it comes to tech policy and digital rights issues, where elected officials often are non-experts.

What’s more, most expertise on technology issues too often comes from specialists hired by industry interests. So when constituents visit their representative to discuss how hard-to-approach technology issues affect voters back home, you’ll typically find policymakers ready to listen carefully.

Is there an issue that you think your member of Congress should consider more closely or change her stance on? Consider discussing the issue with your elected representative by attending a town-hall meeting or visiting the closest constituent office. Here are some tips for how to contact your representative — either Federal, State or local — to ensure a successful meeting.

Find Your Target Office

The first step is to locate which political office you wish to target. This is easier for Federal issues than State issues. For Federal issues, you may wish to target a particular Senate or House committee or subcommittee, which might take some searching on the Internet.

In local political matters — for example, if you want to investigate the purchase or use of drones by your local police department — you may start by scheduling a meeting with a staff person from your city council member’s office.

Senate: Every State is represented by two Senators. And every Senator has an office in Washington, D.C., and multiple offices in the States they represent.

House of Representatives: States are separated into numbered districts, and each district is represented by one representative in the House of Representatives. The number of districts in a State is adjusted after each census. Similar to Senators, Representatives have an office in Washington, D.C., and at least one office in their home States.

Mayors: You may wish to contact your mayor or city manager about issues in your city, like issues concerning the police department, municipal broadband initiatives or funding for technology education in your city. Find your mayor.

Governors: For statewide issues, contact your Governor’s office to share your views or set up a meeting.

State lawmakers and city council members: Local political arenas are sometimes the best places to achieve tangible political change. Do some Internet searching to find your representative.

City councils have a tremendous effect on populations, as they can pass resolutions, bring issues to mayoral offices and conduct studies to drive policy reform. Consider going to a meeting to raise concerns about a local fusion center, community fiber Internet or the need for more government transparency.

Set Up A Meeting

A phone call in favor of or against a particular action that an elected official can take is a great way to advocate for reform, but nothing beats a face-to-face meeting with a staff person or your representative.

Setting up a meeting is easy. On a Federal level, when Congress is not in session, members work out of their in-district offices; so try to set up meetings there at those times. Members also hold frequent “town-hall” meetings for constituents. Inquire at your local office about when they will be held. You can also track when your representative will be in town by looking at the Congressional calendars for the House and the Senate. Congress often designates “constituent weeks” in order to inform the public when they will be in their district. Elected representatives want to hear from voters back home.

You’ll most likely get a meeting with a staff person, and that’s great. Staffers usually know more about the specific details of issues than the representative does.

When you make the call and set up the meeting, be sure you say which organization you represent or if you’re a solo concerned citizen, where you live and the issue that you want to discuss.

Prepare For Your Meeting

Do your research and be prepared. You have the opportunity to be a local expert and help shape the thinking of your elected official.

  • Who are you representing? Try to bring a petition or a letter that has numerous signatories to the meeting. Show that you’re representing a community of people that will be affected by the change you’re calling for.
  • Bring research. Consider making a folder or an information packet with research, white papers, local stories and contact information. If your issue is a digital rights related issue, visit EFF.org for helpful resources.
  • Prepare stories. A fantastic way to communicate the need for reform is by sharing stories. Politicians often repeat stories to make a case, so be prepared to share yours.
  • Have a website and contact information ready to share. Try to have a website and business card ready in advance of your meeting. This will help the staff person find you, your community and your position in the future.
  • Consider organizing a small delegation. Bring a group of stakeholders that all have diverse stories to share. The more real people and constituent numbers that you can tie to an issue the better.

Following Up

After your meeting, send a thank-you email to the person who met with you. In your email, be sure to include information and one or two links that you want your representative to consider. Try to set up another meeting if you feel that you didn’t get to finish making your case. Always be polite and gracious and don’t overload the staffer with more information than she’ll realistically read.

If your contact responds with questions, this is a good sign — and, by all means, answer them. This is a chance for you to become an expert that your representative contacts on digital rights issues. Remember that lobbying is all about building relationships, so try to keep the conversation going and meet again.

Good luck! Email info@eff.org to let EFF know how it went!

Personal Liberty

Electronic Frontier Foundation

From the Internet to the iPod, technologies are transforming our society and empowering us as speakers, citizens, creators, and consumers. When our freedoms in the networked world come under attack, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is the first line of defense. EFF broke new ground when it was founded in 1990—well before the Internet was on most people's radar—and continues to confront cutting-edge issues defending free speech, privacy, innovation, and consumer rights today. From the beginning, EFF has championed the public interest in every critical battle affecting digital rights. https://www.eff.org/

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