If you scroll through EFF’s staff bios, you may notice a trend: we have a lot of reporters who have joined the battle for free speech, privacy, and transparency. Some worked for years in newsrooms or as independent journalists. Others studied and taught at journalism schools or worked directly for journalism advocacy organizations. This kind of experience is often a perfect fit for tech policy advocacy, because reporters have a practical understanding of how important our rights are and how to communicate these issues to the public. And ultimately, EFF’s work is not unlike journalism: we fight to free information and then we write about it.
So it is with great admiration that we announce our latest addition to EFF’s activism team: Kate Tummarello, a writer who you will be reading a lot from during the heated battles over NSA spying on the horizon. Kate joins us after an impressive tour of duty in Washington, D.C., where she covered tech policy in Congress for news outlets such as Politico, The Hill, and Roll Call. When she was on the beat, we were regularly impressed by the hard questions she’d ask us and members of Congress and her ability to translate often arcane concepts to a lay audience.
This time Kate’s on the other end of the interview. I asked her some questions about her background and what she learned covering Capitol Hill.
How did you get started on the tech policy beat?
My road to covering tech policy started at my college newspaper. I wanted to join the editorial board as soon as possible when I got to college, but the only opening my freshman year was as a science and technology editor. Knowing very little about the physical sciences, I decided to become a tech person.
After I graduated with a public policy degree, I moved to DC. Within a few months of starting at a newspaper there, the widespread SOPA protests kicked off, and I was lucky enough to be pulled in to help cover that debate. I saw how nontraditional and unpredictable tech policy fights could be, and I decided I wanted to focus on that.
Can you tell us about one of the most thrilling moments in tech policy that you've covered?
I covered the Hill fight over the USA Freedom Act in 2015, and that was thrilling. Exhausting, but thrilling. I remember standing outside the Senate chamber in the early morning hours the first time the Senate voted on the bill with CSPAN on an earbud in one ear and holding my recorder up to my other ear. Things were changing by the minute, and individual members' votes were genuinely surprising, even to the staffers and lobbyists who were graciously still responding to my late-night emails.
I also remember first seeing Rep. Justin Amash hanging out around an entrance to the Senate floor (to remind the Senate that he would be there to oppose anything less than USA Freedom if the Senate tried to push something through the already-recessed House). I remember the moment Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr said he didn't believe the Section 215 program was actually shutting down as he tried to escape the throng of reporters and go home. And I remember going home to sleep, knowing that we would be back in a week to continue the fight over the bill.
What's something that the digital rights community should know about Congress?
I think that from the outside, it's tough to fully appreciate all of the pressures individual members of Congress are under when it comes to any one vote. It's not as simple as, what's the "right" thing to do, and it's definitely not as simple as considering what donors and lobbyists want to happen. They have to factor in pressure coming from their party leadership, their committee leadership, other members, parts of the administration, their voters, business in their district/state, and more.
That obviously doesn't mean each member shouldn't do what he or she believes is right. But it does often mean that to win over any one member on any issue, you need to change the balance of those pressures so when they weigh all of those competing things against each other, there's more compelling them to do the "right" thing.
Now on the flipside—what's something Congress has trouble understanding about digital rights?
I think a lot of the time, the digital rights community gets lumped in with the tech industry. When members are looking at an issue—especially if it's the tech industry versus another industry or another interest—it's easy to assume that tech companies are using the digital rights community to amplify their own lobbying. It's important to recognize that digital rights activists are equipped with the technical and legal knowledge to arrive at policy positions entirely on their own. Sometimes they happen to align with the positions of the tech industry or individual tech companies, and sometimes they don't!
What are you excited to be working on in the next year at EFF?
Obviously next year's Hill fight over Section 702 is going to be a big deal. After watching the debate over USA Freedom, I'm excited to help contribute to the debate this time around!