When it comes to politics, in-person meetings make a huge difference. Just a few questions from constituents during town halls can show a representative or senator which issues are resonating with the residents of their district or state. Even if you’ve never met an elected representative before, showing up IRL is actually pretty easy to do, and this is the perfect time: in August, Congress takes a break from considering legislation so members can be in their districts, giving you the opportunity to meet and talk to them without traveling to Washington, D.C.
While in D.C., representatives and senators have to rely on calls and emails to know what the people they represent think about the issues. Those calls and emails are important, but when they’re back in their districts, you can make sure they hear directly from you—in person—about the issues that matter to you. Even if you have called or emailed before, putting a face to the same concerns can help your elected representative understand your concerns. Even if you didn’t get them to agree with you, those conversations will help shape their legislative priorities once they return to D.C. in September.
Where In the World Is My Congressional Representative?
The best way to meet your senator or representative is either to call the local office and simply ask for a meeting, or to fill out a meeting request form on the member’s official website. While it may be more difficult to meet with your Senator—who generally covers a bigger geographic area and may be further from you—your federal Representative may be more available for a meeting. The member’s staff may be able set up a meeting over the phone, or they may direct you to a town hall or other district event where the member of Congress will provide an update on current events and take questions. Make sure to carefully follow any instructions listed about parking and security and look to see if you need to register ahead of time to attend.
Be aware that registering may mean including your name and contact information and that failing to register may mean you can’t get into a town hall with heightened security. If you do schedule a meeting, it’s important to know that you may not get a meeting with the actual senator or member of Congress, but meeting with Congressional staff will still get your concerns to the member. Also, consider subscribing to the online newsletters of your House member, as well as your state’s two senators, since they often email their local events directly to constituents and subscribers.
With so many issues vital to digital rights looming in the congressional calendar, this August is a perfect time for Internet users to pressure Congress in person to do the right thing. Below, you can find updates on issues that are critical to bring up with your representative, however you contact them. Tell Congress to protect free speech online, end the suspicionless collection of Americans’ telephone records, and don’t subject Internet users to huge potential fines for regular activity like sharing memes.
Protect Section 230, the Most Important Law for Preserving Free Speech and Innovation Online
Section 230 is the most important law protecting free speech online. The law shields online platforms, services, and users from liability for most speech created by others. Without Section 230, many of the online communities we all rely on every day would not exist in their current form.
Last year, Congress undermined Section 230 with the disastrous law SESTA-FOSTA, which has incentivized online platforms to censor their users, silencing marginalized voices in the process. Now, it appears that Congress has developed a taste for undermining 230 and members of both parties seem eager to do it again.
One attack on 230 has been introduced in Congress this year—Senator Hawley’s “bias” bill, which would give the government unprecedented authority to decide which online platforms are allowed to enjoy Section 230 protections. Rumor has it that there are more anti-230 bills on the way.
Please tell your members of Congress that a strong Section 230 is essential to an Internet where everyone can gather, find like-minded friends, and speak their minds. Tell them that attempts to punish large tech companies by gutting 230 will almost certainly backfire, making it far more difficult for competitors ever to reach the scale of a Google or Facebook. If you work in an Internet-based business that hosts other people’s speech, tell your member of Congress that your business and livelihood rely on Section 230.
End the NSA’s Mass Telephone Records Program
This fall, your elected official will vote on whether to reauthorize Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. This is the law that famously allows the intelligence community to demand that companies, like telephone service providers, hand over any records or any other “tangible thing” deemed “relevant” to foreign intelligence investigations.
For years, the government relied on Section 215 to conduct a dragnet surveillance program that collected billions of phone records documenting who a person called and for how long they called them—more than enough information for analysts to infer very personal details about a person, including who they have relationships with and the private nature of those relationships.
That invasive dragnet collected data without an individualized basis for suspicion, violated our privacy, and suppresses dissent and democracy. In 2015, a federal appeals court held that the mass collection of phone records is “unprecedented and unwarranted.” Later that year, Congress passed the USA FREEDOM Act, which renewed Section 215 while imposing some—albeit insufficient—limitations on the government forcing phone companies to provide the NSA with phone records from thousands or millions of Americans at once.
Now is the time to talk to your elected officials about ending the suspicionless collection of Americans’ telephone records, and encouraging transparency and public hearings on the other uses of Section 215 and what materials it gathers. These public hearings should extend to public disclosures about whether and how people can become targets of surveillance because of their speech and First Amendment-related activities, as well as their race, religion, national origin, gender, or sexual orientation.
Stop the CASE Act From Subjecting Regular Internet Users to Life-Altering Copyright Lawsuits
The Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement Act (CASE Act, H.B. 2426, S. 1273) is a bill that is supposed to help photographers and other artists who find their images taken and used whole, no fair use in sight. But the way the bill is written is catastrophically flawed. Instead of going to a court or a judge, the CASE Act creates a “Claims Board” at the Copyright Office in Washington DC, where “claims officers” will hear infringement claims and issue damage awards that could reach tens of thousands of dollars. Things that regular Internet users do all the time—sharing memes, images, and so forth—could make them subject to claims under CASE.
The CASE Act is often described as a system people will find themselves in “voluntarily.” This isn’t really true. Rather than requiring both sides to agree to be subject to the judgments of the Copyright Office, the bill actually requires the person receiving the complaint to “opt out” within 60 days of getting a notice from the Copyright Office. Failing to opt out—and maybe even failing to opt out in a specific way—leaves you bound by the judgments of the Copyright Office, including judgments issued by default. The net effect would not be artists collecting against true infringers, who are most likely to learn how to opt out, but instead regular people getting notices they don’t understand and ending up owing enough to put them into bankruptcy.
The CASE Act won’t help artists, will hurt regular people, and will create a perfect breeding ground for copyright trolls, who will be able to squeeze whatever money they can out of anyone unfortunate enough to wander into their sight.
While You’re At It, Tell Congress to Save Net Neutrality, Stop Face Surveillance, and Protect the Patent System
The Save the Internet Act (S. 682) would make the net neutrality protections we had under the 2015 Open Internet Order the law of the land, undoing the FCC’s repeal of these popular and important rules. The House of Representatives has already passed it, and now it’s the Senate’s turn. Find out more about what you can do with our Net Neutrality Defense Guide: Summer 2019 Edition.
We also need to make sure we have a patent system that supports creators and users of technology, not just patent troll lawsuits. Senators Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) have proposed draft legislation that would allow patents on abstract ideas and laws of nature. The bill isn’t yet in final form, but now is a good time to reach out to your representatives and tell them that the Tillis-Coons patent bill would be a disaster for innovation.
Lastly, remind Congress that face surveillance technology has well documented disproportionately high error rates in accurately identifying women and people of color—and even if researchers are one day able to correct these current shortcomings, the threat this pernicious and covert mass surveillance represents to Americans’ freedom of expression, religion, and association would remain. Now is the time to stand up and say no to government use of face surveillance.
Don’t Let Congress Stand Still
Town halls and meetings truly matter. When members hear repeatedly from their own constituents in person about how issues are affecting people in the district, those conversations travel with the members back to D.C. If the members think that the issue could generate enough controversy and press, local stories can influence votes, legislation, and private conversations with other members.
And, if you’re interested in getting together a group of like-minded allies to visit a town hall or event, there may even be an Electronic Frontier Alliance grassroots group in your area. The Electronic Frontier Alliance is a grassroots network of community and campus organizations across the United States working to educate others about the importance of digital rights.
However you reach out to them, this is your chance to remind Congress, face-to-face, what matters to you.