Bernie Sanders on Privacy & Digital Rights

Bernie Sanders believes that increasingly omnipresent mass surveillance and attempts to undermine net neutrality are corrosive to democracy in America. He has voted against the Patriot Act and opposes warrantless wiretapping. In regards to net neutrality, he has co-sponsored and introduced legislation in favor of an open Internet.

Mass Surveillance

Start from the beginning: What is mass surveillance?

Mass surveillance refers to monitoring the private communications or other personal information of a large group of people—usually by a government agency. Bernie believes that mass surveillance should be curtailed, occurring only when the government follows due process, obtains warrants, and adheres to the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

What’s this NSA I keep hearing about?

The National Security Agency (NSA) is a United States intelligence agency specializing in signals intelligence. Historically, it has focused on foreign espionage and counter-espionage but has increased its domestic activities over the last 15 years.

So what exactly are they doing?

After the attacks of September 11th, the NSA began to conduct large-scale illegal surveillance of U.S. citizens under the guise of protecting national security.

How are they doing this?

The NSA can scrutinize all Internet traffic that travels across certain major fiber optic backbones. While the NSA claimed to filter out data which stays within the U.S., this is clearly not true. Under “upstream” surveillance, any of your communications could be intercepted by the NSA if the data happened to pass through a foreign server, even if the recipient is in the U.S.

That’s scary. Anything else they’re doing?

The NSA has pursued several other approaches to mass surveillance, including mass distribution of malware.

Want to know more? Check out this detailed timeline of the NSA domestic spying program.

How is this all legal?

The USA PATRIOT Act was the pivotal piece of legislation that allowed the NSA and other government agencies to conduct mass surveillance with little to no oversight.

Got it. So I get that it’s creepy and invasive, but how is mass surveillance a threat to democracy?

According to a joint report by the Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, “large-scale surveillance is seriously hampering U.S.-based journalists and lawyers in their work.”

This report details the chilling impact this has had on communication between journalists and their sources, attorneys and their clients, and government officials and the public. Each of these avenues of communication — reporting, legal representation, and transparent government — is critical to maintaining a functional democracy.

How does mass surveillance undermine cybersecurity?

In a recent letter to members of the House and Senate, engineers and security industry professionals agree that the government’s focus on Americans’ personal information only undermines our nation’s cybersecurity. For more information on Bernie’s positions on cybersecurity, see here.

Are other organizations conducting mass surveillance?

Mass surveillance isn’t limited to the NSA. You’ve heard of the FBI, CIA, DHS, and DEA? And we may not even be aware of every organization that’s conducting mass surveillance — even within the U.S. government.

In fact, we only know about some of these NSA activities thanks to whistleblowers like Edward Snowden. It’s very likely that more organizations are using mass surveillance, but the public simply doesn’t know yet.

So what’s Bernie’s position on the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program and, more generally, mass surveillance?

Bernie opposes warrantless wiretapping and overly broad government surveillance. He believes that it undermines the constitution and is a blatant overreach of government power.

What actions has Bernie taken to limit mass surveillance and rein in the NSA?

He voted against the USA PATRIOT Act (which permits the government broad surveillance powers with little oversight) and its reauthorization.

In 2005, as a member of the House of Representatives, Bernie introduced an amendment to an appropriations act to prevent funds from being used to obtain library and book-buying records. The amendment passed but was later removed during House-Senate negotiations.

Then, as a Senator, Bernie voted against the FISA Amendments Act of 2008. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, this legislation “[gave] the National Security Agency almost unchecked power to monitor Americans’ international phone calls and emails.” Bernie later introduced the Restore Our Privacy Act to limit overbroad surveillance requests.

Are there bills other than the PATRIOT Act that relate to this?

Originally introduced in 2011, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) has been reintroduced two more times over the past five years. It would allow a “self-protected entity“, such as a business, share “cyber threat information with any other entity, including the federal government.” So while it wouldn’t formally grant the NSA or Homeland Security more surveillance privileges, it allows for more open sharing between companies and government agencies “with limited oversight and privacy safeguards.” The way it’s written poses an ambiguous threat to privacy.

David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, an internet activism non-profit, called Bernie out as one of the organization’s “strong allies in the Senate” against CISPA in 2013.

After CISPA was repeatedly defeated due to massive public outcries, a nearly identical bill was introduced and quickly passed in October, 2015. The Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA) was passed overwhelmingly as public opposition did not have time to build. Bernie strongly opposed the bill, joining Ron Wyden, Elizabeth Warren and 18 other Senators in voting against it.

What has Bernie said publicly on mass surveillance?

Bernie has tweeted his thoughts on the NSA:

“In my view, the NSA is out of control and operating in an unconstitutional manner. I worry very much about kids growing up in a society where they think ‘I’m not going to talk about this issue, read this book, or explore this idea because someone may think I’m a terrorist.’ That is not the kind of free society I want for our children.”

In an online Q&A, Bernie said:

Question: Do you think that wiretapping of American citizens is necessary for security of America and Americans? — reddit user “GavinraraFonara”

Answer (Bernie): I voted against the USA Patriot Act and voted against reauthorizing the USA Patriot Act. Obviously, terrorism is a serious threat to this country and we must do everything that we can to prevent attacks here and around the world. I believe strongly that we can protect our people without undermining our constitutional rights and I worry very very much about the huge attacks on privacy that we have seen in recent years—both from the government and from the private sector. I worry that we are moving toward an Orwellian society and this is something I will oppose as vigorously as I can.

Net Neutrality

Our government should support a free and open internet, not get in the way.

Net neutrality refers to the principle that ISPs should treat all data that travels on their networks on an equal basis. That means that ISPs should not charge different prices to different customers or content-providers and should not give certain data special priority over their networks while interfering with the transmission of other information.

Why is net neutrality important?

Advocates argue that permitting preferential treatment of web traffic would put newer internet companies at a disadvantage and threaten innovation. It is a fundamental free speech issue that could give corporations even more control over our access to information.

Want to know more about the case for net neutrality? Check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Why is this an issue? How is net neutrality in danger?

For the last five years, Congress has introduced several industry-backed bills regarding copyright infringement and intellectual property rights. While the bills were supported by entertainment and publishing groups, they were often opposed by public advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the Wikimedia Foundation, and numerous tech companies.

What are all these bills and agreements even about? And why is there so much opposition against them?

The bill that started it all was the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA), introduced in 2010. It was the first dedicated bill that allowed the federal government to shut down a website if copyright infringement was deemed “central to the activity” of the site. It would allow the U.S. Attorney General essentially a nuclear option to turn websites “off”. Wired called it one of the “most draconian laws ever considered to combat digital piracy.” While it died in Congress, it was rewritten as the Protect IP Act in 2011.

The Protect IP Act (PIPA) would have forced search engines, Domain Name System (DNS) providers, and internet advertising firms to “remove or disable access” to websites that the U.S. Department of Justice deemed to be distributing copyright material. CNET called it an “Internet death penalty,” and the way the proposal was worded meant sites like WikiLeaks could be disabled from being accessed in the United States. Decision on this bill was postponed.

Later that year the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was introduced. While it had strong bipartisan support in the House of Representatives and the Senate, it received a strong backlash from technology companies like Wikipedia, Google, and more than 7,000 other websites for threatening free speech. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation explained, this bill would allow for the removal of non-copyright infringing speech by creating an internet blacklist.

The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) was discussed secretly from 2007 to 2010 between several countries such as the U.S., the E.U., Switzerland, Japan, and others. Critics said that ACTA “leaves the door open for countries to force internet service providers to police their own customers” and that it could lead to “widespread monitoring of the internet, and breaches of individual’s rights to privacy.” It was rejected by the E.U. in 2012. However, at this time the official White House position is in support of ACTA.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) had this to say about ACTA:

“There are questions of constitutional authority surrounding whether the administration can enter into this agreement without Congress’s approval … Either way, when international accords, like ACTA, are conceived and constructed under a cloak of secrecy, it is hard to argue that they represent the broad interests of the general public. The controversy over ACTA should surprise no one.”

Where does Bernie stand on this sort of thing?

Bernie has never co-sponsored an act that would threaten internet freedom and specifically opposed PIPA:

“While I believe that online piracy is a serious issue, it is absolutely essential that the Internet remain open and free of censorship or the chilling effects that result in self-censorship. I will not support legislation that results in censorship or self censorship on the Internet. The legislation before the Senate is currently being revised and should improve before it reaches a vote. I am taking the concerns of Vermonters and the Internet community very seriously. I am looking at the bill very closely and my staff is working with committee staff on ways to improve it.”

Bernie also considered SOPA/PIPA “too deeply flawed to continue.”

How does Bernie think we should protect net neutrality?

Bernie strongly supports net neutrality and reclassification of broadband providers as common carriers. He opposes any rules that would allow ISPs to restrict content and stifle innovation (i.e., the Internet “fast lane”).

What has he done to strengthen net neutrality?

Over his congressional career, Bernie has co-sponsored several pieces of legislation to enforce net neutrality. For example, the Online Competition and Consumer Choice Act of 2015. It would prevent Internet providers from creating a ”fast lane” for paying content providers and would generally prohibit ISPs from giving preferential treatment to any content providers. In other words, it would enforce net neutrality.

In 2007, Bernie introduced the Internet Freedom Preservation Act in the Senate, which would have required broadband service providers to adhere to neutrality provisions and other regulations. In 2006, as a member of the House of Representatives, Bernie introduced the Network Neutrality Act of 2006, which also would have enforced net neutrality on broadband providers.

Learn about related policies at the Media Ownership & Telecommunications issue page.