eff astroturfing summary

 

And they will do it too late, for the wrong place.

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Silicon Valley’s Astroturf Privacy Shakedown

in December 2015, a Southern California couple

killed fourteen and wounded twenty-two in the desert town of San Bernardino, before being gunned down themselves. The FBI, worried that the couple had been working with others, wanted Apple to unlock an iPhone belonging to one of the shooters.

Apple had the ability to unlock the phone, but it refused - on principle… throwing its corporate body upon the wheels and gears of America’s odious government surveillance machine.

Apple claimed that providing even one-time access to the FBI in what was clearly a legitimate criminal investigation would forever endanger iPhone and cloud users around the world. Silicon Valley and big business - including Google, Facebook, Amazon, AT&T, eBay, and Intel - sided with Apple and backed it in court against the Department of Justice.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), along with other Silicon Valley advocacy groups, backed Apple.

[EFF and others] insisted that this was not just a struggle to protect Apple’s proprietary software but a matter of venerable First Amendment freedoms.

[But Apple is] a willing participant in the PRISM program, which lets the CIA and NSA siphon whatever data their spies need directly from Apple’s data centers.

Two years later, in spring 2019, one thing became clear: the groups that are usually the loudest and organize the most efficiently around issues of digital rights and privacy had gone strangely silent during the Facebook scandal.

When previous internet privacy scandals hit, from the Apple dispute with the FBI to Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks and even to obscure data gathering provisions in anti-piracy laws, groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation had been out on the cyber-barricades, piling up the e-tires and setting them ablaze with memes and gifs.

And that made sense. Because EFF’s leaders, together with their digital-rights comrades shoring up the bulwarks of civil society as we know it, were supposed to be go-to defenders of the people on the internet. They were professional activists, attorneys, and technologists who did the hard, thankless work of keeping the internet free and democratic.

And yet something broke down with the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal. On paper, this controversy looked to be a dream organizing opportunity for EFF and its allies.

EFF should have been leading the charge. And yet in what was arguably the greatest public dispute concerning the planet’s largest social networking platform, EFF was AWOL - nowhere to be found.

The silence of digital advocacy groups was deafening, and even insiders began to question their motives.

April Glaser, a Slate tech reporter who had previously worked at EFF, penned a heartfelt appeal for EFF and other tech watchdogs to do something - anything - to protect the American people from Silicon Valley surveillance [because]

They know how to make demands, and they know how to hatch an action agenda fast

But it didn’t happen over the March weekend that the Cambridge Analytica news broke.”

She wondered why the normally spunky and combative advocacy groups - groups that she admired and worked for - were sitting on the sidelines.

One likely explanation [for EFF inaction], Glaser reasoned, was that most of these groups depended on funding from the very same corporations that they should be criticizing.

Over the past years, EFF has taken millions in funds from Google and Facebook via straight donations and controversial court payouts that many see as under-the-radar contributions.

But the reason for EFF’s silence on the Facebook surveillance and influence scandal goes deeper - into the business model of the internet itself, which from the outset has framed user privacy as being threatened by ever-imminent government censorship, as opposed to the protection of users and their data from wanton commercial intrusion and exploitation.

Put simply, the lords of the internet care very little about user privacy - what they want to preserve, at the end of the day, is their own commercial license against the specter of government regulation of any kind.

Nevertheless, EFF and the computer industry’s self-regulating privacy lobby have built up sterling profiles as premier defenders of individual freedoms and user sovereignty online. EFF in particular has compiled an impressive file of news clips and TV hits reinforcing its image as a civic-minded tech watchdog out there agitating in the public interest. In one of his books, bestselling young adult science fiction author and EFF staffer Cory Doctorow writes of the Snowden-like protagonist swooning when he finds himself in the same Burning Man tent as the millionaire founders of EFF, whom he describes as the “all-time heroes of the internet.”

But the truth is that EFF is a corporate front. It is America’s oldest and most influential internet business lobby - an organization that has played a pivotal role in shaping the commercial internet as we know it and, increasingly, hate it. That shitty internet we all inhabit today? That system dominated by giant monopolies, powered by for-profit surveillance and influence, and lacking any democratic oversight? EFF is directly responsible for bringing it into being.

To understand this anti-heroic tale, we have to start from the beginning - and return to the hallowed creation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the spring from which so much of today’s internet activism flows.

Cyber-Lobbying

The idea for EFF was hatched in 1990 by two millionaires, Mitch Kapor and John Perry Barlow.

Kapor and Barlow realized that the fledgling personal computer revolution desperately needed its own advocate in the trenches of Washington. Cybervisionaries like them had to pool their resources and lead a charge to keep the feds from meddling in the new and wonderful frontier of freedom called the internet.

EFF officially launched in the summer of 1990, with had deep pockets and big-name support: Apple, IBM, AT&T, Microsoft, MCI, and Bell Atlantic.

What did EFF actually do? At first, it defended a few hackers and phreakers from the FBI in court, but its first true calling - as its A-list roster of corporate sponsors indicated - was to set up shop as a lobbying clearinghouse for the nascent clutch of powerful internet service providers. Or, as John Perry Barlow called it, “Designing the Future Net.”

The early 1990s were a wild time to be in the ISP game.

EFF was there from the beginning, lobbying the federal government to make sure that, once the privatization process ran its course, the government would stay out of the way.

To more effectively lobby this vision of the internet into being, EFF moved its HQ from Cambridge to Washington, D.C.

Leading EFF’s invasion of Washington, D.C., was Jerry Berman, who had been a top ACLU attorney and founder of ACLU Projects on Privacy and Information Technology.

Berman signature achievement had been collaborating with the FBI to draft and rubber-stamp a law that expanded FBI surveillance into the digital telecommunications infrastructure. Known as the “Communications Law Enforcement Assistance Act” - or CALEA - the 1994 law required that telecommunications companies install specialized equipment and design their digital facilities in a way that made it easy to wiretap. The legislation gave law enforcement agencies the same level of access to new digital networks that they enjoyed in the era of the landline.

When EFF’s role in crafting this surveillance law came out, outraged members of its cyber-libertarian base cried foul.

EFF, they’d been led to believe, was created to push back against government control of the internet, and yet here it was working with the FBI to push through a law mandating government surveillance of all digital infrastructure.

In reality though, the outrage stemmed from a basic confusion about what EFF was created to do. EFF emerged as a lobby for the budding internet industry, and with the introduction of wiretap law, Berman and his colleagues performed their job perfectly: placating law enforcement and Congress while getting the best deals they could for telecoms and ISPs.

In the argot of the industry, Berman’s work in massaging CALEA through the legislative process was a feature, not a bug.

But because EFF had so successfully sold itself as a countercultural guardian of digital liberty, the group’s support for a surveillance bill triggered a crisis among its membership.

To resolve it, Jerry Berman was given the boot, whereupon he immediately set up his own lobbying outfit, the Center for Democracy and Technology. In 1995, EFF moved its HQ again: this time to San Francisco, as far away from Washington D.C. as it could get in the continental United States, in the center of the then-raging dot-com boom.

In San Francisco, EFF continued lobbying for ISPs, but that side of the operation became less prominent.

[EFF] reinvented the online privacy crusade to suit a new set of corporate prerogatives. In other words: you can take the industry lobbying group out of K Street, but you can’t take K Street out of its organizational DNA.

As the 1990s came to a close, the privatized and deregulated ISP industry that EFF had helped bring into being [was replaced by] platform giants like Google and Facebook.

These new companies represented a new kind of business.

Without other people’s labor… they would not have a business. There would be nothing to search or watch.

And they wouldn’t stand a chance of turning a profit without a massive surveillance campaign on their own users. Naturally, as these companies grew and matured, two threats to their business loomed large: copyright and privacy. To make sure these never became a problem, Silicon Valley built up a powerful lobbying and public relations machine.

Google become a master of influence on multiple levels, hiring key political insiders from both the Republican and Democratic Parties, funding academics, economists, journalists, bloggers, privacy organizations, and a wide range of politically connected nonprofits.

As Google and other Silicon Valley companies began to use their wealth and power to craft legislation and influence public debate, EFF emerged as a leading partner. And EFF’s 2004 defense of the launch of Gmail offered a perfect opening for this new phase of the group’s lobbying career.

There was a very clear business logic to Gmail. In return for all this online storage space, Google got something even more precious: permission to spy on and analyze the contents of your email and, ultimately, the ability to tie that personal information to your internet search history and browsing habits and link them to your real-world identity.

Naturally, a good number of people freaked out. And a few days after Gmail went live, a coalition of civil liberties groups sent a letter to Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, asking them to put the email service on hold until the privacy concerns could be addressed and fixed. Thirty-one organizations signed that letter - but EFF wasn’t one of them. The biggest, most influential digital advocacy group was nowhere to be seen.

At least, not at first. As the scandal heated up, EFF took an impassive stance. In a blog post, an EFF staffer named Donna Wentworth acknowledged that a contentious debate was brewing around Google’s new email service. But Wentworth took an optimistic wait-and-see attitude - and counseled EFF’s supporters to go and do likewise.

“We’re still figuring that out,” she wrote of the privacy question, conceding that Google’s plans are “raising concerns about privacy” in some quarters. But mostly, she downplayed the issue, offering a “reassuring quote” from a Google executive about how the company wouldn’t keep record of keywords that appeared in emails.

EFF continued to talk down the scandal and praised Google for being responsive to its critics, but the issue continued to snowball.

A few weeks after Gmail’s official launch, California State Senator Liz Figueroa, whose district spanned a chunk of Silicon Valley, drafted a law aimed directly at Google’s emerging surveillance-based advertising business.

Figueroa’s bill would have prohibited email providers like Google from reading or otherwise analyzing people’s emails for targeted ads unless they received affirmative opt-in consent from all parties involved in the conversation - a difficult-to-impossible requirement that would have effectively nipped Gmail’s business model in the bud.

Google mounted a furious and sleazy public relations counteroffensive.

Google’s senior executives assembled a team of lobbyists to influence the media and put pressure on Figueroa. Sergey Brin paid her a personal visit. Google even asked Al Gore tp step in.

And here’s where EFF showed its true colors. The group published a string of blog posts and communiqués that attacked Figueroa and her bill, painting her staff as ignorant and out of their depth.

Leading the publicity charge was Wentworth, who, as it turned out, would jump ship the following year for a “strategic communications” position at Google. She called the proposed legislation “poorly conceived” and “anti-Gmail” (apparently already a self-evident epithet in EFF circles).

She also trotted out an influential roster of EFF experts who argued that regulating Google wouldn’t remedy privacy issues online. What was really needed, these tech savants insisted, was a renewed initiative to strengthen and pass laws that restricted the government from spying on us.

In other words, EFF had no problem with corporate surveillance: companies like Google were our friends and protectors. The government - that was the bad hombre here. Focus on it.

Eyes on the Prize

A year before EFF went to the mat to protect Google’s surveillance business from “anti-Gmail” legislation, it mounted an honorable legal and public relations campaign against President George W. Bush’s Patriot Act.

EFF properly pointed out that the law was a threat to civil liberties, and it rightly criticized government internet surveillance initiatives launched in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks like the Total Information Awareness program, a predictive policing technology developed at the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and later handed over to the National Security Agency, among others.

EFF worried that these technologies would allow the government to turn the internet into a surveillance machine and compile dossiers on millions of Americans with unprecedented ease - again, an eminently justified source of worry, as legions of NSA leaks have since demonstrated.

But when it came to Google and private surveillance, EFF took a totally different line.

Corporate surveillance and government surveillance were totally distinct issues, according to the organization.

But for ordinary net users, the distinctions were not so clear. Google assembled dossiers and built predictive profiles of its users in order to more effectively sell them products.

Google’s data collection was just a corporate version of what the NSA was doing - an extension of one big private-public surveillance apparatus. To him, the failure to address private surveillance had a direct consequence on the effort to rein in government surveillance. The two were intertwined.

In the end, California’s efforts to pass an internet privacy bill failed. Following intense pressure and bullying from the well-heeled Silicon Valley lobbying sector, Figueroa’s legislation died in committee.

In the public sphere, meanwhile, EFF’s vision won out. Concerns about private surveillance were pushed out of the spotlight, crowded out by utopian proclamations about how companies like Google and Big Data would change the world for the better. Privacy would come to mean “privacy from government surveillance.” And corporations? Corporate intentions were assumed to be good - or, at worst, neutral. Corporations like Google didn’t spy; they “collected data” - they “personalized.” Sally Thurer

A Net Wash

In the coming years, EFF would replicate the public relations strategy it used during the Gmail scandal to help protect Silicon Valley’s core business model.

In one legislative battle after another, EFF would focus only on government surveillance, redirecting people’s concerns to an arena of conflict that posed no threat to the great Silicon Valley data-and-dollars grab. If there was a privacy scandal, or a bid to remedy such a scandal via regulation or legislation, EFF would inevitably find some kind of fault with it.

EFF’s brain trust espied slippery slopes leading to government totalitarianism everywhere - and, on the other side of the coin, the unshakeable commercial prerogatives of an industry brilliantly maximizing user ease and convenience at every turn. As for tools to increase privacy, it only had one: encryption. Forget law - only technology could truly safeguard the people.

This strategy was on full display following Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks, which showed that Silicon Valley giants like Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft had knowingly turned their platforms and services into feeder tubes for government spies.

How did EFF respond? By sidestepping the issue of corporate spying altogether and focusing narrowly on government surveillance: private is good; government is bad.

But what, exactly, did Reset the Net want to do? Well, not much of anything. The group didn’t call for legislation to limit the NSA’s surveillance mandate, nor did it want to elect politicians who’d put a stop to America’s digital dragnet. The organizers weren’t interested in chasing politics or social movements, and they didn’t have anything bad to say about Silicon Valley’s for-profit surveillance business practices.

The U.S. government was the real enemy, and the government could only be stopped with powerful encryption tools - tools that would be built and provided by private companies like Google. “Today as part of Reset the Net, tens of thousands of internet users and the internet’s largest companies rallied to protect billions… . Reset the Net demands that web services take concrete steps to protect their users from government snooping, while encouraging everyday internet users to adopt free and open source privacy tools,” declared a Fight for the Future press release.

Privacy activists working with Silicon Valley to fight government surveillance? It was quite a thing to behold. It was like watching antiwar protesters marching hand in hand with Lockheed Martin executives to fight Pentagon missile defense.

Such contradictions weren’t entirely lost on Silicon Valley’s cadre of privacy advocates, at least in their more unguarded moments. These figures acknowledge that Silicon Valley surveillance poses problems for the privacy of users - how could they do otherwise? - but they typically insist that the first-order priority among tech concerns is to curb government surveillance.

The Right to Piracy

In 2011, two similar anti-piracy bills were introduced in the House and Senate: the “Stop Online Piracy Act” and the “PROTECT IP Act,” popularly known as SOPA and PIPA. SOPA was drafted for House debate by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). PIPA was introduced by Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy.

The two bills did not alter copyright law, but sought to strengthen enforcement of existing laws in the internet era. They would give the Department of Justice enhanced power to shut down sites that distribute pirated content, and would place greater responsibility on companies like Google, Facebook, and eBay for pirated music and videos and counterfeit goods distributed and sold through their platforms.

SOPA and PIPA were not perfect, but the defense of culture workers online had to start somewhere. There had to be a way of building an internet ecosystem that didn’t just enrich media monopolies and multimillionaire celebrities and cheat the creative working class out of their labor. There had to be a way of paying the people who created the bulk of our culture: musicians, photographers, filmmakers, authors.

But as it turned out, these topics were taboo. They were not up for discussion. Because Silicon Valley, despite whatever lip service it pays to the idea of individual creativity and “thinking different,” wanted to do no such thing.

Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, eBay, Mozilla, Reddit, PayPal, Twitter, and scores of smaller tech companies went into battle mode to oppose SOPA and PIPA. They framed the legislative dispute as a fight between freedom and totalitarianism and launched a frenzied public relations and lobbying campaign to kill the laws.

Once more, Google was in the vanguard of the corporate struggle. Company execs and flaks opposed the law, claiming that it amounted to a form of government censorship that would turn America into an authoritarian country like China, Iran, or Libya.

EFF once more supplied the lobbying muscle in the anti-SOPA fight - only this time, it was joined by a number of newer Silicon Valley corporate fronts.

Postideological Alarmism

Neck-deep in Silicon Valley funding, it didn’t matter if these groups were affiliated with the Democratic Party or the Koch Republican lobbying network. They

[all groups like EFF] pushed slight variations of the same old business rhetorical strategy, turning people against the regulation of powerful corporate interests by invoking the specter of Big Brother authoritarianism.

It was like watching antiwar protesters marching hand in hand with Lockheed Martin executives to fight Pentagon missile defense.

The SOPA Strike was incredibly successful.

EFF strutted and preened and congratulated itself. “In a few generations, the wildness of the web would have been extinguished. Instead, we fought back [and] showed Washington that the Internet could and would defend itself,”

Following the event, EFF and its younger, hipper cousins like Fight for the Future were the toast of Silicon Valley.

But not everyone was pleased. An increasingly vocal group of musicians and recording artists criticized companies like Google for purposely turning a blind eye to pirated music and videos hosted on their platforms to boost views and advertising revenue.

[they] condemned groups like EFF and Fight for the Future as Silicon Valley front-groups that masquerade as edgy and enlightened defenders of freedom on the internet. “They’re spreading the hyperbolic claims and outright misinformation that Google and other Silicon Valley firms can’t be seen to be spreading,”

In the end, Silicon Valley’s fight against SOPA worked. The law died on the vine in early 2012, just a few months after it was introduced in Congress.

the digital campaign was so successful lobbyists considered it the beginning of a new era of internet-based political movements: “lobbying 2.0.” Lobbying 2.0 - shilling for corporations, but on the internet! We’ve sure come a long way.

The defeat of SOPA was naturally a time of great celebration for EFF. The group’s campaign was successful, effectively short-circuiting any possible discussions about using copyright and anti-piracy enforcement to make sure people aren’t getting exploited.

From 2012 forward, the bid to license and preserve online copyright has been monstrously, and misleadingly, framed as struggle against totalitarianism, conflating Silicon Valley’s right to pirate content at will with liberty and freedom for the masses.

As such, the SOPA battle was just one more successful application of EFF’s rhetorical public relations strategy: frame any attempt to regulate Silicon Valley power with totalitarianism, all while conflating the interests of regular internet dwellers with the plutocrats who own the internet.

Cult Deprogramming

As I write, it’s been two months since the Facebook surveillance scandal erupted. EFF says it’s figuring things out about Facebook, but it looks like it’s moved on - or rather, returned to form with a battery of communiqués raising fresh alarms about government data collection and pushing for encryption.

Former EFF staffer April Glaser. In her appeal to EFF and digital advocacy groups to lead the way in regulating corporate surveillance, she admitted that private spying has never been a big issue for this group.

But that’s what EFF is all about: it’s a Silicon Valley corporate front group, no different than the rest. The only thing unique about it is how successful it’s been in positioning itself as a defender of the people - so successful, in fact, that even the people who work for it believe it.

The fact that EFF has been able to pull it off of for so long shows the kind of immense power that Silicon Valley wields over our political culture. When we think about technology and the Internet, there’s no left or right. There’s just Google and Facebook.

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