Monday, March 20, 2017

Resistance is Voltage Over Current Events

Note: Posts like this are going to be a bit blurry in content and scope. I'm writing about a political tool, and I have political thoughts that I'll share on my other blog. Here, I want to talk about ResistBot's features, uses, good points, and possible points of failure.

Resistbot came to my attention about a week ago via Twitter.  Very simply, you text "resist" to 50409 and the bot will walk you through sending a fax, first to your Senators, then your Congressional Representative. Occasionally you'll be prompted to invite others, donate to the cause, or write again if it's been a day or so. There's a lot more information on the website.

What problem am I trying to solve?


I've been concerned about online abuse and abuse of online tools for some time.  Commentors on ProductHunt point out that having the name "Resistbot" is going to turn people off, especially those who don't feel like resisting.

At a certain point this will not matter. People who are not resisting will begin to use the tool if they have not already.

Other potential abuses:
  • Sending nonsense: mostly harmless.
  • Jamspam - attempts to send control codes. I don't know if this will jam the SMS or fax or the sorting software, but it's something to think about.
  • Sending threats - it's unknown if there is a language filter in the bot. There certainly ought to be something in the software that Congress uses. Since you're required to send a name along, there's obviously a mechanism for dealing with that, which leads to 
  • Impersonation - Right now the bot asks for your name and address. At this point, you could be sending faxes to several offices with just the names on your Christmas list. 
    • Filtering by phone number will not work, as people have whatever number they got with their cellphone and/or messaging service. I'm in California, and my phone numbers are from two completely different states.
    • This is where the harassment issue gets very serious. Officials have to take threats seriously, and it's not hard to imaging someone setting up an innocent person to take the heat.

I don't know if any of these things have happened, but it's almost guaranteed that they will.

A thornier problem are people who have registered in their state's Confidential Address Program. Victims of abuse can register an anonymous address, usually the Department of Justice or the Secretary of State. This can make determining a Congressional Representative very tricky. There should be no reason for people to put themselves at risk by giving the bot their actual address.

Is there anything you like?

Of course! It's very easy to use, and I can send a fax to my representatives the minute the idea comes to mind, day or night. It has about a five sentence limit, so I have to think carefully about what I say.  It's a bit awkward sending things to all three reps when it might only concern the Senate or Congress, but that's minor.

What I really dig is that there is a huge potential for participation by people who have been unable to voice their concerns in the past: 
  • People who don't have time to call and wait on hold and then get nervous and lose track of what they wanted to say. 
  • People who can't get access to email except at a public library, and they have to use that time for things that matter more, like getting a job or doing one.
  • People who literally cannot afford stamps.  Politicians have franking privileges; people should have them, too.
  • People who have limited use of their hands - they can either use voice to text, or a stylus to say what they want. No stamps, and just one button to click, <send>.

I have passed this on to disabled friends and am waiting to hear back. I am a big fan of making things easy, but I'm a much bigger fan of making things possible.