March's Letter from OTI Director Kevin Bankston

Dateline: Austin, Texas, March 14, 2017

As DC digs out from the last snow of winter storm Stella, I must say it’s been a turbulent winter—and I’m not just talking about the weather.  Over the past month, the attacks on internet openness and security that we have been preparing for since the election finally began in earnest. Broadband privacy and net neutrality are under siege at the FCC and in Congress. FBI Director Comey renewed his attacks on encryption in a new speech last week, making clear that we’re not yet done with that fight. Lawmakers in the House held their first hearing on renewal of the FISA Amendments Act, kicking off the latest battle over that controversial mass surveillance law set to expire at the end of the year. And last week’s massive leak of information about the CIA’s cache of hacking tools highlighted just how far we have to go in our fight to regulate government hacking and strengthen the rules around government disclosure of software vulnerabilities—a fact that OTIers highlighted in Wired and the Washington Post, as well as on CNN.

I’m writing this letter in Austin on my final day at the SXSW Interactive conference, where last week’s CIA leaks served as a timely albeit worrisome lead-in to our panel on government hacking and vulnerability disclosure, Bugs in the System. And even here in Texas in mid-March, when the weather is supposed to be sunny and spring-like, this year’s conference weekend was cold, dark, and wet. That foreboding weather mirrored the tone of much of the conference content, where worry over President Trump hung over the proceedings like a dark cloud. “I’ve never seen in my lifetime an atmosphere of fear as I’ve seen now,” said Senator Cory Booker in his conference-opening keynote, while OTI friend and ally Kate Crawford—in what was for me the highlight of the conference—warned that emerging AI technologies may ultimately become tools of fascism unless we act now to thoughtfully guide how they are designed and deployed.

Kate rightfully warned of “Dark Days” in the title of her keynote. The past few have been dark indeed. But as I sit here on a patio in Austin at one of the coffee shops that I haunted as a University of Texas student two decades ago, when I was first inspired to pursue a career fighting for digital rights, the sun has finally come back from behind the clouds. Here, feeling renewed purpose, surrounded by the best and brightest minds that tech has to offer, and thinking back to the team back at OTI HQ and how hard they’ve been preparing for the fights to come, I can only think of two words:

GAME ON.

That’s how OTI policy counsel Robyn Greene responded earlier this month when the House held its surveillance hearing, and that’s how we all need to respond as we enter what is sure to be an embattled spring: Game on. Bring it. We’re not afraid. We’re ready for the fights ahead.  And we have countless allies—allies like you. So, thank you for your continuing support of OTI and its mission, and I hope you too are feeling as inspired and renewed as we are by the coming spring. I also hope you’ll continue to keep an eye out for new allies that we can add to our team, as we are still looking to fill a number of key positions.

Author:

Kevin Bankston is the director of New America’s Open Technology Institute, where he works in the public interest to ensure that all communities have equitable access to an internet that is both open and secure. He previously served as OTI's policy director.