EFF has identified and addressed the delivery problem, and we extend our deep apologies for the delays to digital activists who use our tools.
We recently became aware that there were significant delays in delivering some of the messages sent to Congress via two of EFF’s open-source messaging tools, Democracy.io and the EFF Action Center. While we have now addressed the problem, we wanted to be transparent with the community about what happened and the steps we’ve taken to fix it.
The EFF Action Center is a tool people can use to speak out in defense of digital liberty using text prompts from EFF, including letters to Congress that users can edit and customize. Democracy.io is a free tool that we built for the world based on the same technical backend as our Action Center. It lets users send messages to their members of Congress on any topic, with as few clicks as possible. The errors we experienced only impacted letters (not petitions, tweet campaigns, or call campaigns) for a number of Representatives and a handful of Senators. We sincerely apologize to everyone who was affected by this delay.
The issue sprang from the way in which our tools handled CAPTCHAs, a type of service that website owners use to verify that a given user is a human and not a bot. Our tools work by filling out contact forms on individual congressional websites on behalf of users. When our tool bumps into a CAPTCHA, it takes a snapshot, returns it to the user, and lets the user give the correct answer to finish filling out the form. Since all of our messages to Congress are submitted by real people, this worked fine for traditional CAPTCHAs. However, a percentage of Congress members had begun using a more complicated type of CAPTCHA known as reCAPTCHA, which was beyond the technical abilities of our system.
At the same time, we have made some fundamental changes to our error-logging system. As a result, the engineers who staff and maintain Democracy.io stopped receiving notifications of delivery errors, so we unfortunately missed the fact that a portion of messages were failing.
Some messages are undeliverable due to user data errors, legislators leaving office, or other irresolvable issues. However, we have now successfully re-sent nearly all the deliverable messages that had been delayed in our system. A very small percentage of messages are still pending, but we will be delivering them over the next few weeks.
In addition to delivering the delayed messages, we’ve made some key infrastructure changes to help prevent problems like this from arising in the future and to mitigate the impact of any issues that do arise. First, we integrated an experimental API delivery for the House of Representatives called Communicating with Congress. This implementation has resolved the reCAPTCHA problems we were facing in the House of Representatives. In addition, when someone tries to send a message to one of the few Senators whose forms we cannot complete, we’ll notify the user in real time and provide a link to the Senator’s website so the user can send a message directly. Finally, we’ve improved our error logging process so that if another significant delay happens in the future, we’ll know about it right away.
It’s unfortunate and frustrating that many members of Congress have placed digital hurdles on constituent communications. In a more perfect democracy, we think it would be easy for constituents to simply send an email to their members of Congress and be assured that the message was received and counted. Instead, each member of Congress adopts their own form, many of them requiring users to provide information like titles, exact street address, topic areas, etc. Users who want to email their Congress members may have to hunt down and complete forms on three different websites, and they may inadvertently end up on the wrong site.
We believe that the voices of technology users should echo loudly in the halls of Congress and that timely and personal communication from constituents is vital to holding our elected officials to account. That’s why we built these tools for both the EFF community and wider world. We’re committed to continuing to improve the process of communicating with Congress, both for EFF friends speaking out in defense of digital rights and for the general public. We hope one day Congress will make it easier for constituents to reach them. Until then, we’ll do our best to help tech users find a powerful voice. We are sorry that in this instance we fell short of our goal.