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WHITE HOUSE SUED FOR HOSTING ONLINE ‘SNITCH’ BOX

 

By Sarah Foster
Posted 1:00 AM Eastern
September 1, 2009
2009 NewsWithViews.com

A prominent physicians’ group and a non-profit organization that advocates for inner-city poor are suing the Obama administration for free speech and Privacy Act violations committed through a “snitch” program, in which people were asked to e-mail the White House at a special online address – flag@whitehouse.gov -- any “fishy” information seen on the Web or received electronically about the President’s health plan.

In a 17-page complaint filed Aug. 27 in the U.S. District Court in Washington, the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons and the Coalition for Urban Renewal and Education charge that the White House has “unlawfully collected” information on political speech, thereby illegally using the power of the White House to “chill” opposition to its plans for health care reform.

“The Defendants’ collection and maintenance of information on speech protected by the First Amendment chills the right of free speech, and Defendants intend that chilling effect,” the complaint reads.

AAPS and CURE are demanding that the White House and its Executive Office of the President (EOP), and the White House Health Reform Office remove and destroy any information already collected and that they be prohibited from collecting such personal data in the future.

“We’re asking for several things,” said Kathryn Serkes, director of policy and public affairs for AAPS, in a phone interview. “One: that they completely stop collecting personal data on people; two: that they don’t do this in the future; and three: that they expunge and destroy the information they’ve collected so far.”

The “flag” address project that prompted the lawsuit had been launched Aug. 4 as part of an effort to “push back” on what the administration perceives as rumors and “misinformation about health insurance reform,” as Macon Phillips, Director of New Media at the White House, put it in a blog post titled “Facts are Stubborn Things,” announcing the program.

“Scary chain e-mails and videos are starting to percolate on the internet, breathlessly claiming, for example, to ‘uncover’ the truth about the President’s health insurance reform positions,” Phillips said.

“There is a lot of disinformation about health insurance reform out there, spanning from control of personal finances to end of life care. These rumors often travel just below the surface via chain e-mails or through casual conversation. Since we can’t keep track of all of them here at the White House, we’re asking for your help. If you get an e-mail or see something on the web about health insurance reform that seems fishy, send it to flag@whitehouse.gov.”

Reaction to the electronic snitch box was quick and to the point. The following day Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn fired off a letter to President Obama, demanding an immediate end to the newly fledged program.

“I can only imagine the level of justifiable outrage had your predecessor asked Americans to forward e-mails critical of his policies to the White House,” Cornyn wrote.

“Fishy Speech”

Cornyn also had a few questions and wanted answers:

How do you intend to use the names, e-mail addresses, IP addresses, and identities of citizens who are reported to have engaged in “fishy” speech?
How do you intend to notify citizens who have been reported for “fishy” speech?
What action do you intend to take against citizens who have been reported for engaging in “fishy” speech?
Do your own past statements qualify as ‘disinformation’? For example, is it ‘disinformation’ to note that in 2003 you said: ‘I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer universal health care plan’?

Rather than end the program or respond to the senator’s questions (he’s still waiting), the White House went into damage-control mode, denying it was playing “Big Brother.”


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“Nobody is collecting names,” protested White House press secretary Robert Gibbs at an Aug. 6 news briefing. “We have seen, and as I’ve discussed from this podium, a lot of misinformation around health care reform, a lot of it spread, I think purposefully.”

“All we’re asking people to do is, if they’re confused about what health care reform is going to mean to them, we’re happy to clear that up for them. Nobody’s keeping anybody’s names. I do have your e-mail … Maybe that’s because I assume future mistakes. But I’m not going to say that,” Gibbs said, “drawing laughter,” FOX News reported.

Sen. Cornyn told FOX News: “Of course the White House is collecting names …The question is not what the White House is doing, but how and why. How are they purging names and e-mail addresses from this account to protect privacy? Why do they need the forwarded e-mails, names, and ‘casual conversations’ sent to them instead of just the arguments that they want to rebut.”

While White House spokespersons dealt with reporters at briefings, the AAPS put a lawsuit together with CURE signed on as a co-plaintiff. The association has a 65-year history of fighting to protect the practice of medicine from government intrusion, and had led the fight against “Hillary Care” during the 1990s.

Their complaint was to be filed the morning of Aug. 18, when – with the filing time just hours away, literally, at 7:10 p.m. the evening before -- Macon Phillips (who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit) posted a second blog, an “update,” announcing the end to the controversial program – sort of.

“An ironic development is that the launch of an online program meant to provide facts about health insurance reform has itself become the target of fear-mongering and online rumors that are the tactics of choice for the defenders of the status quo,” Phillips said.

He explained that the “flag” e-mail address was now shut down, but “to better understand what new misinformation is bubbling up online or in other venues” and to “consolidate the process,” a new address had been set up a week earlier “for this same purpose … and all feedback should be sent through through: www.whitehouse.gov/realitycheck/contact.”

The move by the administration on the eve of the planned filing date forced the plaintiffs to postpone filing their lawsuit in order to evaluate the revised program and amend the complaint if necessary. By Aug. 26, the lawsuit was back on track.

AAPS explains in its news release:

“Although the White House slightly revised its data collection procedure last week the e-mail address still exists, the illegal activity continues, and is part of an ‘unlawful pattern and practice to collect and maintain information’ on the exercise of free speech, which ‘continues in violation of the Privacy Act and First Amendment even if the Defendants terminate a particular information–collection component due to negative publicity.’”

Specifically, the original solicitation blog post can still be viewed at www.whitehouse.gov/blog/facts-are-stubborn-things/, but messages sent to flag@WhiteHouse.gov, which is still on the post, bounce back with the following explanation:

“The address you just sent a message to is no longer in service. We are now accepting your feedback about health insurance reform via www.whitehouse.gov/realitycheck

Serkes described the entire project as “unprecedented.”

“We’re not aware of any White House doing this before, or if they did do it they were smart enough to cover it up,” she said. “What is particularly troubling is the way that they’re so willing to blatantly violate people’s privacy and free speech. They’ve not even pretended that they’re not doing it, and it’s only after a serious amount of public pressure that they caved and said they were revising their collecting techniques.”

AAPS and CURE have reason to believe they were reported to the White House, and included this in the complaint. For one thing, although Serkes played a highly visible role from the beginning in opposing the administration’s health care reform efforts, she received nothing threatening from its supporters, nothing directed at her personally. Not until the “flag” address project was initiated, that is.

“Then, all of a sudden I started getting e-mails sent to me saying ‘you should be ashamed of yourself,’ ‘you’ll get yours in the end,’” Serkes recalled. “I’d been pretty visible – beginning with when we got the Baucus White Paper last November. I’d been doing radio, television, and town meetings.

“The first nasty e-mails I got came after the White House solicited the reports. Not until then. I had not received any e-mails from these people saying ‘you’re a horrible person’ until then.”

“Cookie” Tracking

Serkes added that one of her concerns is cookies, tiny bits of data that enable websites to track users – “which means they can track people who are accessing the White House website and follow them to other sites.”

She said she thinks this has already been done: “We know people who have accessed the White House website at healthreform.gov and have then received unsolicited e-mails – they have not signed up for e-mail alerts, and then they received unsolicited e-mails -- which means that the White House is employing cookies to track who actually logs onto that website. (such as alerts from Obama For America) These are people who are not Democrats and who never signed up for that. They’re trying to figure out how they got on these lists.

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“That’s obviously something we think we’ll have to find out in discovery. We think they’re possibly sharing names with a non-government group. That’s one of the reasons we put in there that we want them to expunge that information – so that it cannot be shared,” she said.

NOTE: AAPS is a “non-partisan professional association of physicians dedicated since 1943 to protection of the patient-physician relationship.” CURE, founded by columnist and social policy consultant Star Parker, serves poor and inner-city communities through church, individual, and market-based solutions to poverty.

The case number is Civil Action No. 09-1621-EGS.

Earlier Stories

1 - Jim Kouri: Americans Skeptical Over Obama's Health Care. July 21, 2009
2 - Joel Turtel: Obama's Health Care Death Lists Coming Your Way. July 18, 2009
3 - Jim Kouri: Health Care Report: Americans Paying More for Less. July 3, 2009
4 - Jim Kouri: Obama's Health Plan Poses Danger to American Freedoms. Jan. 13, 2009

More Reading / Sources

1 - Text of Complaint
2 - H.R. 3200: America's Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009

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Sarah Foster is a researcher and freelance writer:
sarahfoster7433@att.net


 

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“We’re asking for several things,” said Kathryn Serkes, director of policy and public affairs for AAPS, in a phone interview. “One: that they completely stop collecting personal data on people; two: that they don’t do this in the future; and three: that they expunge and destroy the information they’ve collected so far.”