#Internet2016 on the Campaign Trail with Jindal, Cruz and Paul

Last month I drove about 500 miles around central and eastern Iowa to put the Free Press Action Fund’s September bird-dogging workshop into practice.

Bird-dogging involves asking political candidates questions to get them on record about a particular issue. Why is this called bird-dogging? Because the questioner is helping voters elicit answers in the same way that a dog helps a hunter flush birds out of brush.

Not to torture the metaphor, but I’ve been a regular retriever! On my most recent trip to Iowa, I was sniffing candidates out and barking at them about their plans to protect a free and open Internet.

Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum

My first stop was an Iowa City candidate forum coordinated by several local churches and a D.C.-based advocacy organization called Israel Allies. The church sanctuary where the forum was held was about two-thirds full, with approximately 150 people. Trish Nelson, a Free Press Action Fund member who participated in the September bird-dog training, accompanied me and helped document the event.

No one in the audience was invited to participate; candidates spoke for about 30 minutes each and were then whisked off by their handlers without taking any questions. Once we realized this was the pattern, Trish and I scurried to get between Gov. Jindal and the exit and ask him a question about government surveillance.

Jindal told me that he thinks the government should have warrants before collecting digital or telephone data about Americans: “We’re talking about very powerful tools and their ability to invade our privacy rights.”

Ted Cruz

The next morning, I drove to Kalona, a village about 30 minutes southwest of Iowa City. When I arrived in the lobby of a small family-owned motel decorated with Bible verses and photos of children in cornfields, I found a small but spirited flock of Ted Cruz supporters. About 50 people had gathered to hear Sen. Cruz, packing the motel lobby and spilling into the parking lot.

Cruz took questions from the audience and I was heartened by the fact that I wasn’t the only one asking about civil liberties. Before calling on me, Cruz took a question about rolling back the Patriot Act. Cruz responded that he had supported the USA Freedom Act, which ended the bulk collection of phone metadata for most Americans.

However, when I asked Cruz about his position on the Cyber Information Sharing Act (CISA), which would allow increased government spying over the Internet, the senator said he wasn’t familiar with the legislation. Cruz wasn’t present for last Tuesday’s vote on that bill, which passed by a margin of 74–21.

Rand Paul

After my short visit to Kalona I headed to Drake University in Des Moines to attend an event for Sen. Rand Paul. Paul’s appearance at Drake was part of a campus tour intended to get 10,000 “Students for Rand” to caucus for him. From the soundtrack to the use of a photo booth, it was clear that Paul was courting a different demographic than the other candidates I’d met.

While most of the time was taken up with getting about 150 people in line to have their photos taken with Sen. Paul, there was also a short campaign video that seemed designed to demonstrate the diversity of Paul’s support on campuses, a speech by the candidate and a very brief Q&A session.

While I wasn’t called on, Paul’s speech included several points about protecting the Fourth Amendment and rolling back government programs that spy on Americans, specifically programs that collect phone metadata.

Next Steps

This bird-dogging trip was an excellent next step for our Internet 2016 campaign. It was great to reconnect with participants from our September bird-dogging workshop and to practice getting questions asked in different contexts. I used three different tactics at these events to try to get candidates on record (chasing after a candidate seeking to avoid questions, participating in a candidate Q&A and trying to discuss policy during a photo-op).

But this trip wasn’t just about practice. The two questions that I asked candidates uncovered information that will both educate the public and help the Free Press Action Fund continue our work for Internet freedom.

Before my trip to Iowa, Gov. Jindal had been fairly ambiguous about the government’s bulk data-collection programs. While we weren’t able to get Sen. Cruz on record regarding his position on CISA, we’ve been using the video of him saying he wasn’t familiar with the bill to pressure him in the run-up to the Senate’s vote. Unfortunately, our pressure wasn’t enough. Last Tuesday all four senators running for president (Cruz, Paul, Rubio and Graham) skipped the final vote on CISA.

I hope to ask other Republican and Democratic candidates questions about surveillance, Net Neutrality and expanding affordable broadband access when I return to Iowa over the coming months.

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