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Advocacy at EFF – Rainey Reitman

Rainey Reitman

At Namecheap, we are proud supporters of Internet freedom. We have aligned with the Electronic Frontier Foundation for almost five years now on our various social initiatives and are pleased to introduce Rainey Reitman, who represents advocacy at EFF

Wesley: What are your duties at EFF and how long have you been there?

Rainey: I’m the activism director at EFF. My background is in consumer privacy and I continue to work on privacy now. I’ve been with EFF for about 5 years. There are teams at EFF that work on very different things. There’s a legal team that works on impact litigation, the activism team, which I run, and there’s a technology team that builds new technologies to help people protect their data online.

It’s a combination of education and advocacy that lets regular people get involved in these pressing fights for liberty.

The activism team that I run focuses on educating the public about digital rights issues and also giving them ways to make an impact. So if there’s a bill that is moving its way through Congress we then speak out to oppose or support that bill. If there’s a really bad practice at a corporation, we might draw public attention to it and give people a way of making their voices heard. It’s a combination of education and advocacy that lets regular people get involved in these pressing fights for liberty.

Wesley: Are you just focused on bills and laws that are currently being debated, or existing laws that you feel should be changed?

Rainey: It’s a combination of both so for example there’s a bill that was passed in the ’80s called the Electronics Communications Privacy Act, which is the primary law that controls law enforcement access to email. The email was very different in the 80s than it is today. The law has not aged as well as it could, and has left room for the government to argue that they can access your email without a warrant. We’ve been fighting to change it, but it’s tough to move Congress. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of relationships.

Wesley: That sounds very time-consuming.

We’ve spent several years fighting a cybersecurity bill that has a lot of movement in Congress.

Rainey: For that reason, we’ve spent more time on things that are now moving. We also do a lot of advocacy on bills that we want people to speak upon. We’ve spent several years fighting a cybersecurity bill that has a lot of movement in Congress. It was written in an extremely vague way, and we fear that the government could use the vague terminology in the bill to gain access to people’s private data through corporations working closely with the government. We’ve spent years trying to raise awareness and have people speak out. We work with both bills that we want to see and those that are coming whether we want them to or not.

Wesley: How do you prioritize all of this?

Rainey: That’s a good question. I think about what is going to be the impact if EFF doesn’t get involved. If EFF sits this one out, is something terrible going to happen, or is everything going to be okay? Too often it feels like if EFF doesn’t get involved, things could go awry or we wouldn’t have the best outcome for users. That would be something I would consider a lot. Often I’ll look and see what’s moving soonest, what’s most likely to be taken up by Congress. Whether or not it’s a particularly right moment to influence public opinion on something and prioritize those things first.

We have this belief that you have to be ready for the next big event which means you need to have all of your ducks in a row if the next Ed Snowden shows up tomorrow. This means having a deep grassroots network across the nation ready to engage with us. We’re especially focused on college campuses these days, and our very informed member base that is willing to speak up. Giving them the tools to make a difference.

I’m in regular communication with them about all these issues, so that if something breaking happens or a new opportunity shows up down the road they can jump in and make the biggest difference possible. So those are some of the things I think about when considering priority. It’s a hard battle choosing what we get involved with, and what we don’t is one of the hardest decisions that we have to make.

Wesley: How many decision-makers are there in choosing the issues you want to tackle?

Rainey: EFF leans towards people in the office who can make good decisions on their own. We also lean towards a consensus-driven model of decision making, so when we’re deciding whether or not to take a particular position. We get anyone in the organization who wants to get involved, in a room together, and just talk it out. Sometimes that’s a 15-minute conversation, and sometimes it’s half a day.

That’ll be how we explore all the different facets of a particular problem or issue. From there, we’ll arrive at what we think the best thing to do. Most of the time that’s what we do. In terms of individual priority setting, we tend to make our own decisions in collaboration with whomever our boss is. In my case, it’s the Executive Director. I also work with a team of activists who consult with me on what they should be prioritizing. I often bite off more than we can chew, and I have to be realistic a little bit later about whether or not we had eyes bigger than our stomach.

Wesley: How big is your team?

Rainey: The activism team is four and a half people other than me currently, and we are hiring two more. We have two activists who are more focused on copyright and intellectual property issues, and we’re hiring two more that are going to be focusing on surveillance and privacy issues. We also have an investigative reporter who is just phenomenal and he’s been doing a wide range of things around privacy issues, but he’s doing a big investigation right now into the technology used by police and prisons. There’s our newest hire whose background is community organizing. He used to be executive director of these great civil liberties nonprofit in DC, and he’s come to lead our grassroots effort and with the focus on college campuses around the country.

Wesley: What about public-private partnerships? How is that data protected?

One interesting thing about privacy law in the United States is that people tend to think that there is a law protecting all their public data.

Rainey: These kinds of laws are going to happen most often on the state level. If you’re concerned about it, you have to see what your specific state has in place to protect the privacy of your information. I know that there are at least a few states that have very strong privacy protection around that data, and I know other states that do not.

One interesting thing about privacy law in the United States is that people tend to think that there is a law protecting all their public data. Like one big law that’s making sure that the government isn’t accessing it without proper authority, and that is not giving away to other companies and there isn’t a law like that in the US. Instead, we have piecemeal laws that cover different types of data in different types of situations. It means that especially for new technology often you’re looking at the state level and asking if my state has caught up with the current technology and has enacted something or is it lagging behind.

Wesley: So is there’s no HIPAA equivalent for protecting your general data?

Rainey: No there isn’t no there isn’t a HIPAA equivalent. I would also argue that I don’t feel that HIPAA is a very strong law in a lot of ways.

Wesley: How do you notify the public about these issues? You mentioned grassroots, but what other ways do you get the word out?

Rainey: We’re really lucky and honored to have an amazing community of people online who support our work. In particular,  there’s a huge community of people on Reddit and Hacker News who, whenever we write about something, get the word out. We also work very closely with a lot of tech journalists. We will put out almost anything and they’ll pick it up and it will get some coverage in the tech journals. From there a lot of mainstream publications will then pick up stories a few days later.

We have a great community on Twitter that follows us and helps us get the word out. Google+ we have about a million followers. We put out a mobile app last year for Android phones so people can stay up to date on campaigns. We’re going to be putting out a new version of that in the coming weeks. It’ll have a better UI. The previous one was functional but not very easy to use. We also have a great Facebook following. But it’s a little less active than our Twitter feed.

Activists at EFF make a lot of things but in a lot of ways, they’re bloggers. They take on an issue and they frame it for the public, in a way, that people can understand. They do independent research and then write a blog post and sometimes that will just take off. That can have a huge impact. I would say that the blog has been one of the most powerful tools that we have to advocate for change.

Wesley: What are your other sources the financial backing for EFF?

Namecheap has been a huge supporter of EFF for many years.

Rainey: Namecheap has been a huge supporter of EFF for many years. They have done some pretty fun and inventive things where they’ll make donations to us when people tweet particular things which is great. They’re also very supportive of our activism. We’re really grateful for all that name check has done to help us do our work.

We are also member supported and we rely on individuals who make donations and also become members. We’ve also benefited tremendously from the online gaming community and in particularly Humble Bundle. They released bundles of 5 pay what you want games and sometimes you can donate on top of that to EFF. The Humble Bundle community has been a huge help for us and actually had a substantial impact on our annual budget.

Wesley: What is something that we should be looking at for right now?

Rainey: Things that are coming out that you might want to get people aware of is that we’re doing a lot of advocacy around encryption. There’s been a huge debate in the United States about encryption because we are seeing pressure from the FBI to create secret backdoors to our communications. Basically making encryption less secure for everybody. In the next few months, we’re very likely to see lots of attention paid to this issue.

We have been pressuring Obama to weigh in. I expect we’ll get no response from him pretty soon. We are also seeing state bills they’re trying to weaken encryption too. It’s a very hot topic. We created a site, Save Crypto. To get a response for the president you have to get 100,000 signatures in 30 days. We did get that so now we’re waiting for an official response.

Rainey Reitman serves as director of the activism team at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She is particularly interested in the intersection between personal privacy and technology, particularly social networking privacy, network security, web tracking, government surveillance, and online data brokers. She also works on issues related to financial censorship, free speech, and software patents.

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