In 2007, then-Congressman Edward Markey couldn't make it to Bali, Indonesia to speak at a conference on climate change, so he created an avatar on Second Life to deliver his remarks instead. While he spoke into a microphone in Washington, D.C., his animated likeness orated from a computer screen at the Bali conference. At the time The Boston Globe noted that his doppelganger had a brutal comb-over; when they asked Markey for his thoughts, he told them jovially, "I think my tie looks great."
In addition to energy and climate, technology was one of Markey's big issues during his decades in the House, and he seems to be considering making it his calling card now that he's in the Senate. Last year, he sent letters to America's major cellphone carriers, asking them to report how many data requests they receive a year from law enforcement agencies digging for evidence. (Their answer was more than a million just for 2011.) Thursday, The New York Times reported that the newly-elected Senator from Massachusetts had sent those requests out again. In the new climate of scrutiny and fascination toward the government's spying programs, the results may garner more attention this time around.
The Times writes that Markey has broadened his list of questions for the carriers, who include AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon. He wants to know how many times federal requests have invoked the Patriot Act, though this seems like a longshot since the relevant section imposes a gag order. In addition, he asked:
What exactly does the government seek from the carriers, he wants to know. How often do they ask for cellphone tower dumps, location data, content of text messages, browsing history and so on. How many of those requests did the companies comply with and how many did they deny and why?
In the past, Markey’s attempts to regulate the telecommunications industry haven’t exactly made waves. In fact, they’ve fed the notion that he is uncurably dry, allergic to any issue that could be construed as controversial. (These are criticisms I revived last week when Markey punted on his first major vote in the Senate.) The stuff isn’t exactly scintillating; to wit, Markey has been a major proponent of network neutrality, the idea that Internet service providers must make all data equally available instead of trying to charge for some content in a way that privileges their own. Important, but also something of a snooze. One of his more celebrated crusades in this area was for the E-Rate, a government program that helps fund Internet access in schools and libraries.
But this summer’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s spying and the Justice Departments probes into journalistic organizations may have forever changed American’s view of technology, from boring to bombshell. We're thinking hard about our data, and how it can be used. For the first time in his life, Markey may have tapped into the zeitgeist.
Nora Caplan-Bricker is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @NCaplanBricker.