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Tell congress to stop SOPA with a physical letter (sendwrite.com)
594 points by colevscode on Nov 15, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 93 comments

Although I applaud the efforts here, as a former staffer and intern for a congressman, I hate to be the bearer of bad news...

The truth is my job as an intern, as was the job of all other interns that I met while in DC, was to take constituent calls and also open constituent mail. However, no information was ever actually relayed to the congressmen. We had a formatted response to each and every issue that the House could possibly vote on. Everything from internet poker, to any issue you could imagine. We would print out (and alter if necessary) the response to tailor it to the individual that called, emailed, or wrote a physical letter. The congressman's signature was stamped at the bottom of the letter and sent back to the constituent, giving the allusion of due diligence on the congressman's part.

I was extremely surprised and disappointed at the same time at how commonplace this was. Pretty much every intern I asked about it went through the same drill. It's just another thing about our government and "representative democracy" that really irked me. So whenever I see ads urging people to call or write their congressman, I think back to this and realize further how powerless we really are.

The best way to exert influence over your congressman is to donate lots of money and become a memorable name that can get in contact with the actual representative him/herself. Hell, that's how I got the internship. This is one of the reasons I sympathize with the OWS movement.

I know for a fact that many offices explicitly log responses received from constituents based on phone calls/letters they receive. If the phone is ringing off the hook or the office gets inundated with letters, this will undoubtedly make one of the more senior staffers take notice and he should report it up the chain of command.

Obviously its all relative but if enough letters/phone calls get placed, the message will be received.

Furthermore, the co-sponsers on both the House and Senate bills are bi-partisan in nature so this is an issue that is obviously not as black and white as your typical party lines type vote. Hopefully this might cause legislators to take a serious look at the issues being raised and actually give some attention to popular opinion if in fact enough people like us make a fuss.

Yup, everything I've ever heard through the grapevine is that congressmen will notice if they suddenly receive a big volume of calls about something.

If only calls were recorded and letters were scanned. Analyzing the trends seems like pretty powerful data for a congressman.

Then again, you could say that the congressman shouldn't need a computer to understand the people he represents.

They wouldn't if they only represented the number of people they were supposed to when the constitution was written (house members that is).

However we capped it at 435, so each congressman represents far more people than he is supposed to. I say technology has reached the point where we should remove the cap have thousands of representatives.

We used to expand the number of lawmakers as the nation grew.

We should have three times as many members of Congress to get back to the representation levels of 1900.

You've got a pretty good pattern-matcher between your ears. Staffers have them too, they can note "hey we got a bunch of calls about this issue" at the end of the day.

You are mistaken if you think that 18 and 19 year olds taking phone calls as interns are in any way an effective means of conveying information to those in charge. Sure, they can note trends. Do they? No. The primary concern was which lobbyist reception with free alcohol everyone was going to at the end of the day. And although many of them may have a good grasp on a lot of issues, some like SOPA may be lost on them. Not to mention the more fringe issues. What if 60% of your constituents call in favor of an issue and for 40% against it.. How does that get relayed effectively?

I've never worked as a staffer but from what I've heard, if there was unusual volume on something it usually got escalated. If it's bumps in the noise, yeah, no big deal.

Thank you for taking the time and effort to write this. It's rare for us to get a glimpse into "how things actually work".

I believe your account, but it may not be as bad as this in all districts. Consider this report and the reply from someone who worked in a district office (from Reddit): http://www.reddit.com/r/technology/comments/lxrpk/so_i_email...

"Congressmen win based on grassroots and know where their bread is buttered. You have so much more power than you think you do, if you're one of the (very) few who are willing to step up and fight for your beliefs."

I've heard similar things from a friend of mine who worked for a large non-profit that organized large, successful campaigns. His contention was that the vast majority of people are totally disengaged from politics, so anyone who actually speaks up is likely to be an influencer.

Yeah, that sounds pretty accurate as to how things work in the OP. As he and some others mention, if you say that you are with the "press" or "organization X" you are much more likely to get to talk to someone who has direct involvement with the congressman i.e. an LA (legislative assistant) or even chief of staff although he's about as scarce as the congressman at least in my instance. It's unfortunate though that you have to lie to order to get your personal opinion conveyed. I agree that we should have more congresspeople or at least a way to better account for everyone's point of view.

What do you think of PlainSite?


It's not done yet but we're working on it.

Do you think a site like this is even theoretically capable of catching the attention of people in Washington?

There are several things that come into play here. First off, the majority of politicians I have met (Governors, Senators, Congressmen and former VP Big Dick Cheney) are the old white male types with social tendencies and aren't very technologically oriented (This is a generalized statement, I know - it doesn't apply in all situations.) That is how you become a politician: become a likeable figure with some sense. I have a feeling that the majority of their opinions are based not on their own research/knowledge but rather that of their legislative assisants. We had 6 or 7 of them and they were all smart people finishing law degrees and trying to work their way up in Washington. They do the research. They DO NOT care about the news or "second hand" informational sources as they put it (unless it's negative press). So I guess my point is, know who you are trying to reach.

Your idea is solid. But you are going to have to gain a critical mass and become the go-to place for expressing your opinion on politics. If you can do that I have a suggestion for you: Make it so you can sign in or browse by district. Make it so that the legislative assistants can go to their specific districts' thoughts and opinions within the website. This is much more important than getting viewpoint of the nation as a whole. Good Luck.

I have, however, had good luck replying to form letters with point-by-point responses citing sources. I suspect that is highly annoying to form-letter pushers.

What about if people express their commitment to actions, e.g., boycotts, etc., if SOPA goes ahead. I created a simple site where people can just send one-liner email to register their commitment to action. Kindly see http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3243052.

Wallawe: Do you think this on-line petition system is useful? Instead of going through a congressman, one could go through the White House?


This wasn't addressed to me but I thought I'd comment.

The We The People petitions, I believe, are there to make the people believe they are making an impact in policy by signing one. Most, if not every, response from the White House has been a generic, basically meaningless response from an unknown staffer.

Case in point: https://wwws.whitehouse.gov/petitions#!/petition/we-demand-v...

Notice how this petition has been signed by more people than most of the others...

I think it is probably more useful and would get more attention than an individual letter or phone call to your congressman.

I'm cynical on government too but don't you think that if enough people contact them somehow and theres a clear majority view that somehow the official get the message and that sways them just a bit? Am I still being too naive or is it really truly nothing but money money money that gets them to do anything?

You are correct. I worked for a conservative congressman and he knew his constituents and what they wanted for the most part. It's not hard if your state leans hard to either side of the spectrum. And in his defense, if he took every call and letter into account, he would never have time to do anything else. But at the same time, what about those that have a differing opinion from the majority and have a good point to be made? Shouldn't everyone's opinion be heard? And what about states whose constituents are closer to the center? It's a difficult situation to say the least.

I was briefly skeptical, but on reflection, I like this for three reasons:

First, email just doesn't work for contacting Congress. They get entirely too much, and it's entirely too easy to get lost in the pile. It's the preferred means of communication for most of us on HN, but it's just not effective outside our industry. Phone is better, but there's nothing quite like flooding someone's office with paper to convey the will of the electorate.

Second, SendWrite is one of the companies that would be hurt by the bill - being able to generate volume like this shows the reach and effectiveness of their lobbying efforts. Sacks of cash are the backup currency of Congress - Votes are still the coin of the realm.

Finally, you guys are putting your cash on the line for this - that's a powerful statement, and I applaud you for doing so.

Email works better, actually. All of Congress uses web forms that categorize and route the messages directly to their CRM systems. So it is easy for them to tally and respond. Mail, on the other hand, has to get irradiated for bioterror and takes 4-6 weeks to arrive. The letters are made brittle and staff dislike handling them, and they have to be typed or scanned into the office CRM.

Congress uses multipliers to figure out how predictive each piece of communication is (ie, how likely it is that a certain piece of communication will result in a change in voting behavior).

I don't remember the exact numbers, but the hierarchy goes (in descending order): in-person visit to DC office, in-person visit to local office, physical handwritten letter, physical typed letter, phone call, email. The multiplier attached to email is close to zero.

(The exact method varies by congressman/senator, but the relative rankings are the same throughout).

OK, so who's going to start sendperson.com?

If this is real, it's a great example of why this kind of government is way overdue.

millions of people affected by some law, 0.01

one retired guy pissed of by something minor, but that happens to live close by, 700

Not exactly. The person would have to be a constituent, so he would live no further than any other people in the district.

You could make a statement about wealth and lobbying, but to be honest, those are considered in a different category anyway.

It's actually rather accurate. If someone takes the time to write a handwritten letter and mail it, it means a lot more than just clicking a DemandProgress button that has all of your personal information pre-populated. The Internet lowers the cost (effort) of communication, but on the other hand, the non-material cost is a way of showing that the issue is important to you.

"in-person visit to DC office" at the top of the list

Yes, but only constituents' opinions are relevant, and all constituents must live within the district.

I've used faxes reasonably effectively. With my former representative in Congress, I always received a written response in a timely fashion. (Swing district, and they were taken out in the last "swing".) Faxes (well, letters sent as faxes) have some of the impact of a physical letter, but can be delivered on short notice and escape the scenario the parent describes -- if that is indeed what is happening.

I've put some considerable time and thought into a few letters that I've in turn faxed.

If you have a Windows machine with a modem, and a landline, you already have a fax. I presume *NIX boxes have or can acquire software that will do the same job.

Actually from your description it sounds like letters are the way to go.

If Google understands what's at stake hear, they need to stage a "government backed hijacking of their search engine" for a couple hours during peak business with a written statement explaining the evil of the bill.

Or just blacklist all government IP addresses for a day or so. That could bring some attention to the issue.

I'd love to send people to this site, but I worry people who have never heard of the bill won't know what is going on. Can you embed the explanation video or point to or something?

Edit: I see you just did. Thx! I just linked to it on DuckDuckGo as well as donated and sent my letter. Thanks again.

I'm more comfortable sharing the EFF 'opposition' post from yesterday. It's full of quotes that outline the concerns to friends and family that just won't understand or care about 'DNS'. https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2011/11/explosion-opposition-i...

How insane is it that you have 12k karma, have no problem commenting on js, ruby, jquery, mongo or even css... but you're worried about people not understanding this bill.

NOT a comment about you, epi08, but just commentary about what matters.

If you haven't called your congressperson about this, then you don't care.


Putting a notice on a site trafficked by 10's of thousands per day like DDG is a lot more powerful than calling...

Everyone with a site, please do this. I've put it on PadMapper.

Here's the problem: after the 2001 anthrax scare, all mail sent to Congress has become incredibly delayed (on the order of weeks) while it gets tested and radiated. What some lobbying campaigns have done to get around this is send mass faxes to congressional offices overnight. It's like having access to someone else's office printer and that person has 1/538th of control over the federal government.

The takeaway is, unless these letters are hand delivered, I doubt theyll reach their intended recipients in time.

This is the second or third time I've read the problem of postal mail to congresspeople in these comments. I really like what SendWrite is doing here, but what riordan and others have said here rings true to me. Are they going to get my mail weeks after it mattered?

This is a great idea. I'm sending in mail through this. Not everyone has the luxury of literally stopping by in person, but this is a fantastic alternative.

I love this, though I've held back on commenting on SOPA until now. One of the frequent comments on SOPA I see is that the original founders behind the internet believed it should be free and unregulated. While I agree, once you introduce capitalism to the internet, as most companies have, you cannot let it be entirely unregulated. What is happening in the internet now is the same process that occurred directly after the industrial revolution - first there were completely unregulated, grievous abuses in the industry. The entertainment industry is attempting to regulate the flow of information and "capital" in the same way the government had to go "trust buster" on the industrial sectors in the last two centuries.

However, while this is all good and well, as the side video explains, they already have protocols for doing this. They don't need any more methods of stopping piracy and the like. They should shift their attention to different ways of raising capital and earning revenue. The system they have isn't working, but erring on the side of regulation instead of erring on the side of libertarianism is still erring. There needs to be a comfortable balance, and SOPA does not make such a balance - it tips the scales in favor of the entertainment industry, and that is the last sector of the United States the internet should be supervised and moderated by.

I know this doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell of happening, but I wager if Google, Facebook, etc. were to shut down their websites for an entire day--or even part of a day--that congress would get the picture. Give the entire Internet a blank page stating simply and concisely what is at stake. Just imagine the deluge of calls.

This is great action on the part of SendWrite.

One suggestion: since you ask for the sender's home address anyway, why not use that to scrape the contactcongress website to automatically fill in their representatives?

Would love to do that. We wanted to get this out the door quickly. If it is popular we'll see about improving the UI. Thanks!

Sunlight Labs has an API that'll do it by zip code: http://services.sunlightlabs.com/docs/Sunlight_Congress_API/

They've got libraries for Ruby, Python, and even PHP, and the interface is drop-dead simple. Definitely worth a look - I'm baking them into one of my projects right now.

This could have saved us a lot of time. Thanks!

This is amazing. Some years ago, I wanted to build a site that did essentially the same thing (but for a different issue), and this API either didn't exist or wasn't complete/accurate enough. It's remarkable how much power the web has to effect political change - seems like we're only seeing the beginning of it.

...that is, unless SOPA passes, in which case this may be as good as it gets....

If people don't want to waste paper, you can also check out popvox.com or votizen.com. Both allow for electronic communication with Congress.

Just a bit of advice from back when I was sending letters over the DMCA.

If your congressman is supporting the bill, don't bother. My Senator at the time was Fritz Hollings; came from a poor district, so he was dependent on a lot of outside contributions. I recall Disney being one of his largest contributors. I received a response 3 months after it passed that more or less told me I was a enemy of commerce. I won't lie, I was a little shocked to get back such a pointed letter when I was as courteous and respectful as possible.

I learned my lesson from that one. You can send a letter to anyone and generally it is a great idea, but if they get a dime from your position's opposition, it is just pissing in the wind. It's just business.

Really nice of you to have made this free. I would have paid! I wouldn't have sent this if not for sendwrite, just because the cost for me to type, print, stamp, and mail an envelope is too high.

I would have paid!

For those who have yet to do it, I should point out that there is a PayPal donate button to support this effort that you are shown after submission of your entry. Send cards to all your representatives, then send those nice folk a couple of bucks to cover the postage at least.

I actually signed up for SendWrite before, but didn't really want to spend money on sending letters from the internet.

However, I've now donated $5 because of the selfless thing they are doing. Thanks to everyone at SendWrite for doing this, hopefully it will help!

Individual postal letters have considerably more influence than form e-mails, but I don't know what category these letters would be placed in. I worry that a letter that is sent from an automated website might not carry as much weight as putting your own letter in an envelope, handwriting the address, and sending it out from your zip code.

Supposedly, the constituent contacts that carry the most weight are in-person visits to the congressperson's office, contacts from people authorized to represent groups of constituents (like mayors), individual letters that are not copied from a form, and individual phone calls that are not read from a script.

If anyone has a reason to be in Washington, calling the office of your congressperson and scheduling a meeting with their staff during that time will be very helpful, especially if your congressperson is on a relevant committee, in this case the House and Senate Judiciary Committees.

I actually expected a paywall but was pleasantly surprised to see only a donate button. I hope that works out just as well for them.

Does any advocacy group (EFF, etc) have info on who the key swing/undecided/"marginal" votes are?

Knowing that we could try and focus dissemination of this to people in those districts.

You do mention "focus dissemination of this to people in those districts", and that is key, because unless a Representative/Senator is the head of a committee, an email/letter/etc., from outside of their district is completely discarded.

Also, if you are not registered to vote, your comment goes in the waste bin, too. Trust me, I know plenty of people who work or have worked in various legislative bodies, and the first thing they do when they get contacted by a "constituent" is check to see if they are registered to vote in their district. If not, then the message falls on deaf ears.

hi all, as a chinese, let me explain what's the situation in China. maybe you already know we have a similar censorship system called GFW(the Great FireWall of China).

when the government don't want we to see the truth of something, or something may be a threat to them,they will ban it incruely, sometimes they even do it in the name of "for the children" or "for the harmony society" or give their version of totally-bullshit “truth”.

besides the baning of website, they also have some people take salaries from government and speak for the government in every forum when scandals of government officials burn out.and when scandals burns out government also send orders to every website, every press to stop talk and publishing on the scandals, the reason they give is "for the harmony of society" or "don't be mislead by the media in US and Euro" :D

what's more almost every big website/application in china has employees either hired by government or hired by website/software-company to censor the users' activities, including QQ(biggest IM in china, just like MSN), Youku & Tudou(biggest two video site, like youtube), renren(biggest SNS in china, like facebook), baidu(biggest search engine in china, like google).if you said something bad to the government, your words must be deleted, what was worse, there used to be 2 men chatting using QQ, and the owner of QQ--Tencent Compang--give their chats record to the police ACTIVELY, and the result is the 2 men was sent to prison.

so if you allow your congress to pass SOPA, you know what would happen to you all.

I absolutely love the idea. I cant remember where I read it or heard it, but physical letters do get much more attention. Nothing against SendWrite, but I think even more attention can be gained via distinctive-looking enveloped letters that need to be cut open and unfolded. A stack of similar-looking postcards will have an impact in terms of volume, but will likely be sorted into a bin and never read. If you have the time and have extra company logo-ed envelopes, please consider sending one by hand as well.

Thanks! Just to clarify, SendWrite letters are mailed in an envelope, so each one will need to be opened. Also we deliberately didn't use a pre-written letter as a template. The result is that the letters we have received are very unique.

Damnit! Great idea, but I HATE it when on-screen text is not user-selectable. I want to take your on-screen address and put it on my own envelope. GRRRRRRR!!

Great idea, though. Thank you.


From my letter:

H.R.3261, the 'Stop Online Piracy Act', is going to be the Volstead Act of the 21st Century. Like Prohibition, creating draconian laws like these to stop online piracy is going to do two things: 1) destroy respectable businesses that thrive on user-generated content and 2) drastically increase the number of pirates online by expanding its definition, and in doing so, massively expand online piracy. SOPA will literally create a generation of internet bootleggers.

Thanks for a great tool.

A suggestion: I'd like to be able to send a letter to all of my representatives and senators at once, instead of having to fill out the form multiple times.

that might get expensive for SendWrite...

Sendwrite's normal charge for 20 cards is $39.80. I sent three cards (two Senators, 1 representative), and donated to cover at least that.

This is great. What's the cashflow situation here - how many donations will you/do you need (I'm aware this is obviously demand dependent, but I'm just intrigued about the general situation)

Great idea! I hope everyone uses this service as soon as possible.

Its really great of you guys to offer this service on your own dime - thank you. Its also very shrewd marketing, and I hope it pays off for you.

Thanks for this. I wrote my letter and probably wouldn't have done so without the help of this website. This is one of the first times that a bill has come up that I feel so strongly against. If this thing becomes law, we'll all refer to the internet "before" and "after" this moment. I certainly hope it never comes to be.

Have always wondered if an online service for political mailings like this couldn't introduce some randomness to the opening, key statements and closing (Sincerely, Regards, etc) and varying the layout and style so they don't look too much like they were cranked out with the push of a button.

Thanks guys! I donated a small amount, hopefully it will pay for my letters.

Donated, tweeted, emailed, sent the letter, etc. Cole is a baller.

Looks great, but I can't set an international return address without a state. I'm a registered voter in the US, but haven't been a resident for a long time.

Guess I'll just email my rep.

Perhaps someone can change the facebook link at the top to a share or a recommend link. Those show up in feeds whereas likes only show up on your wall.

My Congressman and Senator here in Massachusettsmust understand the ramifications of this bill and protect the individual's citizen from corporate and government control of the internet. They must be educated and read up on this abrogation of civil rights and government protected and constitutionally guaranteed free speech and discourse. Dan Osterman, Boston

The names in the DropDownList Control are invisible in IE8: http://imgur.com/7UIbT

> Don't know who is your local representative?

I believe that should read "Don't know who your local representative is?", no?

Nice work guys. Thank you for doing this.

I just submitted my letters to my representatives (and donated, thanks Cole!)

To hit up your reps with different communication channels, http://www.contactingthecongress.org has voice, fax, and web forms.

Not that I don't want to support you guys for doing something awesome like this, but I wish the "Like" button showed appropriate meta-content on my facebook wall, instead of just a generic description of SendWrite. Also, donated. :)

I sent mine off a bit ago, thanks a ton for doing this. Here's to making a difference.

This is awesome, but the bill will be on the House floor tomorrow.

Great idea, just sent letters to both of my Senators.

Is this when they slip in another bill that does something even worse? While we are inundated with the news of this bill?

Is this a one off website or based on some framework? This seems like a very powerfully general purpose advocacy tool.

Very great for sendwrite to do this. Not only will it protect their business, but it's a great marketing tool.

Thank you for making this a free letter.

Thanks for this =)


There's also Apple's new Cards app. I'm going through my cat pictures now.

I'm impressed. SendWrite is doing good while promoting themselves and it makes an awesome first impression. I never thought of using them before. I never even visited the site, just heard of them and generally got the idea of what they do. I think I may use them now! I'm actually looking for an excuse!

If you are really serious about taking a stand on this bill, then the most impact will achieved by going to the source of it, not Congress... unless you have more to offer Congress' incumbents and the nation's economy than the industry source does.

They are a very important constituent.

If a large number of consumers stopped purchasing a certain entertainment company's products for one day, would it have a noticeable impact on their revenues? How about a week? A month?

The industry claims it's losing business to pirates. While it's probably true to some extent, it is speculative and nearly impossible to measure accurately. How many of the consumers of pirated content were never consumers of paid content to begin with?

The products this industry sells are not life necessities.

In summary, a branded entertainment "hunger strike" by actual existing, paid customers. This would cause real loss. And, if it's a noticeable loss, it would send a very strong message.

Good luck.

Just completed/sent a letter via your link and donated afterwords (and I rarely donate). Nice work.

Filled out one for each of my representatives and senators, and also made a small donation. I may not be able to do much, but I'll be damned if I don't do anything.

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