On Breach of Decorum and Government Growth

Last week, the Center for Democracy and Technology changed its position on CISPA, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, two times in short succession, easing the way for House passage of a bill profoundly threatening to privacy.

Declan McCullagh of C|Net wrote a story about it called “Advocacy Group Flip-Flops Twice Over CISPA Surveillance Bill.” In it, he quoted me saying: “A lot of people in Washington, D.C. think that working with CDT means working for good values like privacy. But CDT’s number one goal is having a seat at the table. And CDT will negotiate away privacy toward that end.”

That comment netted some interesting reactions. Some were gleeful about this “emperor-has-no-clothes” moment for CDT. To others, I was inappropriately “insulting” to the good people at CDT. This makes the whole thing worthy of further exploration. How could I say something mean like that about an organization whose staff spend so much time working in good faith on improving privacy protections? Some folks there absolutely do. This does not overcome the institutional role CDT often plays, which I have not found so creditable. (More on that below. Far below…)

First, though, let me illustrate how CDT helped smooth the way for passage of the bill:

Congress is nothing if not ignorant about cybersecurity. It has no idea what to do about the myriad problems that exist in securing computers, networks, and data. So its leaders have fixed on “information sharing” as a panacea.

Because the nature and scope of the problems are unknown, the laws that stand in the way of relevant information sharing are unknown. The solution? Scythe down as much law as possible. (What’s actually needed, most likely, is a narrow amendment to ECPA. Nothing of the sort is yet in the offing.) But this creates a privacy problem: an “information sharing” bill could facilitate promiscuous sharing of personal information with government agencies, including the NSA.

On the House floor last week, the leading Republican sponsor of CISPA, Mike Rogers (R-MI), spoke endlessly about privacy and civil liberties, the negotiations, and the process he had undertaken to try to resolve problems in the privacy area. At the close of debate on the rule that would govern debate on the bill, he said:

The amendments that are following here are months of negotiation and work with many organizations—privacy groups. We have worked language with the Center for Democracy and Technology, and they just the other day said they applauded our progress on where we’re going with privacy and civil liberties. So we have included a lot of folks.

You see, just days before, CDT had issued a blog post saying that it would “not oppose the process moving forward in the House.” The full text of that sentence is actually quite precious because it shows how little CDT got in exchange for publicly withdrawing opposition to the bill. Along with citing “good progress,” CDT president and CEO Leslie Harris wrote:

Recognizing the importance of the cybersecurity issue, in deference to the good faith efforts made by Chairman Rogers and Ranking Member Ruppersberger, and on the understanding that amendments will be considered by the House to address our concerns, we will not oppose the process moving forward in the House.

Cybersecurity is an important issue—nevermind whether the bill would actually help with it. The leadership of the House Intelligence Committee have acted in good faith. And amendments will evidently be forthcoming in the House. So go ahead and pass a bill not ready to become law, in light of “good progress.”

Then CDT got spun.

As McCullagh tells it:

The bill’s authors seized on CDT’s statement to argue that the anti-CISPA coalition was fragmenting, with an aide to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) sending reporters e-mail this morning, recalled a few minutes later, proclaiming: “CDT Drops Opposition to CISPA as Bill Moves to House Floor.” And the Information Technology Industry Council, which is unabashedly pro-CISPA, said it “applauds” the “agreement between CISPA sponsors and CDT.”

CDT quickly reversed itself, but the damage was done. Chairman Rogers could make an accurate but misleading floor statement omitting the fact that CDT had again reversed itself. This signaled to members of Congress and their staffs—who don’t pay close attention to subtle shifts in the views of organizations like CDT—that the privacy issues were under control. They could vote for CISPA without getting privacy blow-back. Despite furious efforts by groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU, the bill passed 248 to 168.

Defenders of CDT will point out—accurately—that it argued laboriously for improvements to the bill. And with the bill’s passage inevitable, that was an essential benefit to the privacy side.

Well, yes and no. To get at that question, let’s talk about how groups represent the public’s interests in Washington, D.C. We’ll design a simplified representation game with the following cast of characters:

  • one powerful legislator, antagonistic to privacy, whose name is “S.R. Veillance”;
  • twenty privacy advocacy groups (Groups A through T); and
  • 20,000 people who rely on these advocacy groups to protect their privacy interests.

At the outset, the 20,000 people divide their privacy “chits”—that is, their donations and their willingness to act politically—equally among the groups. Based on their perceptions of the groups’ actions and relevance, the people re-assign their chits each legislative session.

Mr. Veillance has an anti-privacy bill he would like to get passed, but he knows it will meet resistance if he doesn’t get 2,500 privacy chits to signal that his bill isn’t that bad. If none of the groups give him any privacy chits, his legislation will not pass, so Mr. Veillance goes from group to group bargaining in good faith and signaling that he intends to do all he can to pass his bill. He will reward the groups that work with him by including such groups in future negotiations on future bills. He will penalize the groups that do not by excluding them from future negotiations.

What we have is a game somewhat like the prisoner’s dilemma in game theory. Though it is in the best interest of the society overall for the groups to cooperate and hold the line against a bill, individual groups can advantage themselves by “defecting” from the interests of all. These defectors will be at the table the next time an anti-privacy bill is negotiated.

Three groups—let’s say Group C, Group D, and Group T—defect from the pack. They make deals with Mr. Veillance to improve his bill, and in exchange they give him their privacy chits. He uses their 3,000 chits to signal to his colleagues that they can vote for the bill without fear of privacy-based repercussions.

At the end of the first round, Mr. Veillance has passed his anti-privacy legislation (though weakened, from his perspective). Groups C, D, and T did improve the bill, making it less privacy-invasive than it otherwise would have been, and they have also positioned themselves to be more relevant to future privacy debates because they will have a seat at the table. Hindsight makes the passage of the bill look inevitable, and CDT looks all the wiser for working with Sir Veillance while others futilely opposed the bill.

Thus, having defected, CDT is now able to get more of people’s privacy chits during the next legislative session, so they have more bargaining power and money than other privacy groups. That bargaining power is relevant, though, only if Mr. Veillance moves more bills in the future. To maintain its bargaining power and income, it is in the interest of CDT to see that legislation passes regularly. If anti-privacy legislation never passes, CDT’s unique role as a negotiator will not be valued and its ability to gather chits will diminish over time.

CDT plays a role in “improving” individual pieces of legislation to make them less privacy-invasive and it helps to ensure that improved—yet still privacy-invasive—legislation passes. Over the long run, to keep its seat at the table, CDT bargains away privacy.

This highly simplified representation game repeats itself across many issue-dimensions in every bill, and it involves many more, highly varied actors using widely differing influence “chits.” The power exchanges and signaling among parties ends up looking like a kaleidoscope rather than the linear story of an organization subtly putting its own goals ahead of the public interest.

Most people working in Washington, D.C., and almost assuredly everyone at CDT, have no awareness that they live under the collective action problem illustrated by this game. This is why government grows and privacy recedes.

In his article, McCullagh cites CDT founder Jerry Berman’s role in the 1994 passage of CALEA, the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act. I took particular interest in CDT’s 2009 backing of the REAL ID revival bill, PASS ID. In 2006, CDT’s Jim Dempsey helped give privacy cover to the use of RFID in identification documents contrary to the principle that RFID is for products, not people. A comprehensive study of CDT’s institutional behavior to confirm or deny my theory of its behavior would be very complex and time-consuming.

But divide and conquer works well. My experience is that CDT is routinely the first defector from the privacy coalition despite the earnest good intentions of many individual CDTers. And it’s why I say, perhaps in breach of decorum, things like: “A lot of people in Washington, D.C. think that working with CDT means working for good values like privacy. But CDT’s number one goal is having a seat at the table. And CDT will negotiate away privacy toward that end.”