Netroots Nation Is Not Surprised

The online left saw PRISM coming. Do they have a plan to do something about it?

Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas, whose blog was the inspiration for the Netroots conference

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press

SAN JOSE, Calif.—Six summers ago, when the online left was weaker but more optimistic than it is today, a congressional candidate from the Seattle suburbs named Darcy Burner recorded a short video on a burning topic. The Democratic-run House of Representatives had just passed the Protect America Act of 2007. According to House Democrats, the law would bind down the National Security Agency and put an end to “wireless wiretapping.” According to the law’s detractors, it did nothing of the sort; on the contrary, it redefined electronic surveillance to liberate the agency from the FISA courts. Netroots Nation—then called “Yearly Kos,” after the blog that inspired the conference—was fairly brimming with anger over what the Democrats had done.

“I want to tell you that the FISA that just got passed in the House completely sucks,” said Burner, wind stubbornly blowing hair into her face. “I can’t believe that the people who have sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America treat it so casually and are willing to throw our civil rights, and the basic separation of powers that keeps tyranny in check in this country, under the bus so easily.”

Burner ended up losing her race; Republicans actually used the clip of her saying “sucks” at a liberal conference to prove that she was too kooky for Congress. She got over it. Burner was actually the first person I recognized at this year’s conference, helping out her 10-year-old son Henry as he conducted iPhone video interviews for his blog. As Henry uploaded his last get, I asked Burner if she remembered the old FISA backlash.

“Oh, it was totally crazy to think that the legislation might be used to spy on Americans without warrants!” she laughs. “What was I thinking? If anything I’m a little surprised that people are so shocked.”

But they’re not that shocked at Netroots. Should they be? This is a meet-up—in Silicon Valley!— of 3,000 or so people who spend their working lives on an eminently hackable Internet. Some of them spent the Bush years in varying stages of panic over that president’s post-9/11 surveillance. The first-ever Netroots conference, in 2006, actually featured a jokey “tinfoil hat-making contest.” That didn’t come from nowhere.

The NSA scandal now leaves activists a little cold and a little resigned. “I’m not super upset about it because I figured they were doing it anyway,” says Neil Traven, a ponytailed endocrinologist taking a break in the convention’s carpeted hospitality lounge, wearing a near mint condition (Howard) Dean for America shirt. “You go in the Internet’s Wayback machine, you can find any kind of data. I know what metadata is. It’s not the calls, it’s information about the calls. There’s no way even with the biggest computers that they could actually hold on to all the calls.” He found that reassuring.

This is a pretty standard response. I seek out Markos Moulitsas, the Daily Kos impresario, at a downtown bar, crowded with Obama 2012 war room vets, that’s running Game 7 of the NBA Finals. The wrong team wins, and the NSA isn’t a particularly compelling topic of distraction. “Didn’t we assume that the government was spying anyway?” he asks.

Plenty of people did. The Netroots generally rejected Hillary Clinton’s 2008 candidacy over her vote for the Iraq War, on the theory that an outsider would move the party left. It got promises from Barack Obama about the unwinding of the spy state and Guantánamo Bay, but then Obama became president and the disillusionment set in. Obama’s been disappointing liberal activists for years. In the exhibit hall, an activist with the old-school San Jose Peace and Freedom Center hoists a succession of anti-Obama signs. Like this one:

Obama said he would listen to us
We didn’t know he meant it literally

But yelling about Obama isn’t going to change anything. There’s no 2016 chatter in San Jose, no expectation that another liberal hero would run for president and undo the security state.

“The problem is the law,” says Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, holding court at a downtown food truck social; the party was the start of a new campaign to raise the minimum wage. “I don’t blame the Obama administration. They’re doing the full extent of what the law allows. The problem is that the law allows too much. You can’t just look at people’s stuff if they have no ideological connections to illegal activity. This may be one of those situations were those of us on both sides of the aisle who have concerns can get together.”

That means working with libertarians again, as the GOP base becomes more and more hospitable to the Rand/Ron Paul version of the universe. One of the only Netroots panels that digs in on the NSA scandal features online strategists talking up their alliances with the Tea Party right. The Stop Watching Us coalition, for example—that includes FreedomWorks, which poured money into the Allen West and Ted Cruz campaigns, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which is waging a FOIA war on the EPA.

“We need to use this moment to start opening up people’s eyes to what’s really going on when it comes to people’s privacies,” says Rainey Reitman, activism guru at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “We need to expose how the companies we rely on to connect us to the Internet have complied with surveillance. We change the law to ensure that this sort of spying is ended.” Right after they get the rest of a busy and distracted and less fearful left on board.