The Electronic Frontier Foundation Makes Its Pitch to the Tea Party

Last night, certain segments of Twitter were startled to see the Electronic Frontier Foundation publicizing a blog post with the title "Tea Party, Taxes and Why the Original Patriots Would've Revolted Against the Surveillance State." The EFF, with its focus on defending digital civil liberties, is usually seen as cosmopolitan and left-leaning, not conservative.

For example, the EFF has received funding from George Soros, while Tea Partiers tend to view George Soros as the embodiment of most things they're against. But the EFF post characterizes the Tea Party's priorities thus:

Today the Tea Party movement aspires to continue the legacy of the founders by championing the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Never afraid of controversy, Tea Party activists and elected leaders are fighting against mass surveillance in the courts and in the halls of state legislatures and Congress.

The post goes on to argue that "mass surveillance is a manifestation of big government," and that potentially the Founders (had they been able to grasp concepts like Tor) would have hated it. And, well:

Tea Party activists don't shy away from confrontations that may put them at odds with other groups (particularly on the left), but no one can deny that on the subject of mass surveillance, the movement is on the frontlines protecting every American's rights.

The main reason that the Tea Party might object to surveillance, the post goes on to explain, is a matter of cost:

Reason magazine has an excellent essay about IRS and privacy, outlining how the IRS obtains, scours and fails to secure personal data collected from taxpayers, while tax-reform advocate Grover Norquist wrote a worthwhile op-ed in The Daily Caller today about how the IRS exploits the outdated Electronic Communications Privacy Act. But it's also important to consider that the taxes the government collects ultimately fund the surveillance state. "No taxation without representation" was the rallying cry of the American revolution, and yet here we are today, with the NSA conducting surveillance without adequate checks and balances.

So if you're against government and taxation, you should be particularly against the government spending your tax dollars on surveillance. The more familiar specifics of the Tea Party program—the intense opposition to social-welfare spending, say—go unmentioned, in favor of generalities like this:

Activism is most effective when is happens at the personal, local and national levels and the Tea Party has proven it knows how make a ruckus, whether it's on a personal blog or outside the White House. America needs the Tea Party to keep applying that patriotic passion to NSA reform.

And this:

Stopping mass surveillance—it's what the first patriots did, and it's what today's patriots are doing right now.

Of course, this is a post on the website of an advocacy organization, not a piece of straight political reportage or historical analysis. Even so, it seems both wishful and oddly enthusiastic about a partisan activist movement.

I got on the phone to one of the post's co-authors, Dave Maass, the EFF's Media Relations Coordinator, to discuss why the EFF decided to publish the post. Maass explained at length that the EFF is trying to address specific communities with posts like this one and pointed out that the EFF has made somewhat similar posts about the African American civil rights movement and the LGBT community.

"We decided we couldn't just go for traditional liberal groups," Maass said.

Maass also explained that he himself is a journalist with a long history of criticizing the Tea Party. (His co-author, Nadia Kayyali, who did not return a request for comment by press time, describes herself in her bio as a longtime protester and Occupylegal member.) But, he said, "one thing that has impressed me in this whole movement against the NSA is how broad the coalition is." He also pointed out that the EFF's "Stop Watching Us" coalition includes Tea Party groups... and Occupy groups. And of course, the EFF is nonpartisan, and the piece reflected that.

Asked if some of those passages above might sound like endorsement, Maass cited the EFF's (obvious) support for the First Amendment. Maass drew an analogy to the EFF's participation in ongoing litigation about the "Innocence of Muslims" video to the post. "We do feel that free speech is important," he said, "regardless of whether the material is ugly. We don't have to support the content of the speech in order to support the right of people to have that speech."

Maass said he thought he had been very careful about not outright endorsing Tea Party positions. He described a process of "highlighting where the Tea Party is doing something positive, and urging them to focus their energy on this issue." He said that they had carefully interviewed Tea Partiers to put the post together.

But he said the EFF trod a fine line. "It was a very difficult thing to write in that regard, to go through and carefully frame the elements," he said, "to both highlight where Tea Party activists are doing good and not alienate those who are opposed to them."

He was nonetheless unsure that the post had had the intended effect. "It is the rhetoric that the Tea Party likes, and we were trying to reach them," he said. "What I haven't gotten much feedback on," he added, "is how the Tea Party is reading this thing."