Next month, freedom of information and digital rights activists are joining to generate awareness for the mass surveillance the federal government has conducted on Americans in hopes of inspiring the public to push lawmakers for change.
The EFF said it was partnering with several activist groups, companies, and online platforms such as Demand Progress, Reddit, Mozilla, and BoingBoing, to hold a global day of activism in opposition to government mass surveillance programs.
Scheduled for Feb. 11, “The Day We Fight Back” protest is one way activists say they can demonstrate opposition to massive spying not only by the U.S., but other government agencies around the globe that have similar Orwellian practices.
Though placing an anti-spying banner on a website and changing one’s avatar on social media networks for one day may not sound like an effective tool to spark change, this same technique was used last year to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act, and it proved to be effective.
While organizers say it’s unlikely that this protest will prompt lawmakers to shutdown the National Security Agency, David Segal, who co-founded Demand Progress with Swartz, and is the executive director of the organization, said the protest is a first step in promoting change.
In a statement, Segal said that the group decided to hold the protest because “Today the greatest threat to a free Internet and broader free society is the National Security Agency’s mass spying regime.
“If Aaron were alive he’d be on the front lines, fighting back against these practices that undermine our ability to engage with each other as genuinely free human beings,” he said. “Aaron showed us that being a technologist in the 21st century means taking action to prevent technology from being turned against the public interest. The time is now for the global tribe of technologists to rise up together and defeat mass surveillance.”
Brett Solomon, executive director of Access, which is participating in the protest as well, added that “Aaron thought in systems. He knew that a free and open Internet is a critical prerequisite to preserving our free and open societies. His spirit lives in our belief that where there are threats to this freedom, we will rise to overcome them. On February 11, we’ll rise against mass surveillance.”
Sparking legislative change
Ultimately, the goal of February’s protest is to push for the passage of the USA Freedom Act, as well as additional measures to protect non-Americans, Segal said, adding that the group is also trying to stop the passage of the FISA Improvements Act, which would codify the phone records collection and other unconstitutional spying programs.
Introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, who also authored the USA Patriot Act, the USA Freedom Act is a piece of legislation that the lawmakers say would “end the dragnet collection of Americans’ phone records under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act — which allows the FBI to order any person or entity to hand over any tangible item to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities — and ensures that other authorities cannot be used to justify similar dragnet collection.”
Although the legislation’s authors say the government’s surveillance techniques will cease to exist with the passage of the Freedom Act, the intelligence community will still be allowed to gather information on Americans. But instead of the surveillance program’s activities being kept secret, the bill would create new oversight, auditing and public reporting requirements.
On a Reddit thread promoting the protest, “The Day We Fight Back,” organizers said that “In the last 6 months we’ve seen that government agencies, namely the NSA and [the U.K.’s] GCHQ and others, have broken laws and twisted legal interpretations to create an infrastructure of mass surveillance of all of us online.
“This creates a dark form of censorship, of course, as people become afraid to speak freely — and it’s one that undermines our security and our right to privacy as well. As users of the Internet, we have a responsibility to defend its freedom.”
Segal added that “we need our legislators to hear from people who love the Internet that we won’t stand by and let it be turned into a giant tool for mass surveillance.”
Part of the concern many of these groups have with the NSA’s mass surveillance program is that the agency was actively participating in activities that have been some of digital rights advocates greatest fears for years.
In a post on the Libertarian website Personal Liberty Digest, the EFF wrote that “The NSA is undermining basic encryption standards, the very backbone of the Internet. It has collected the phone records of hundreds of millions of people not suspected of any crime. It has swept up the electronic communications of millions of people indiscriminately, exploiting the digital technologies we use to connect and inform.”
Josh Levy of Free Press, an organization participating in the protest, released a statement saying his organization is participating in the protest because “These [unconstitutional NSA programs] attack our basic rights to connect and communicate in private, and strike at the foundations of democracy itself. Only a broad movement of activists, organizations and companies can convince Washington to restore these rights.”
While the activists have thrown around a few ideas for how to keep the government from conducting surveillance on citizens, Cory Doctorow, writer, activist, editor of BoingBoing and close friend of Aaron Swartz, said governments “should be limited to surveillance of particular individuals for whom they have legitimate suspicions that are validated in the form of a court-issued warrant where that court has an adversarial procedure that includes an advocate for the surveilled subject.”
However, Doctorow added that in reality governments will always have an interest in surveillance as long as they can increase their empire and profits.
“I seriously believe that there are spooks whose mission in life is to amass the biggest budget, the largest number of reports, and the most institutional power as is humanly possible, because they get brain-reward for doing it,” he said. “There is no coherent national security explanation. But institutional psychology explains a lot.”
So why even try to keep the NSA from conducting mass surveillance? Doctorow says that if the people give up and don’t try to protect their rights, we are giving up on the rule of law and democracy itself.
While there have been at least three major protests in response to the NSA revelations — Restore the Fourth, 1984 Day, and one on the 12th Anniversary of the passage of the Patriot Act — there haven’t been any major protests on the Internet in regards to the agency’s Big Brother-esque work.
Digital protests may be a new phenomenon, but Segal says that they are nothing to scoff at and points to the SOPA efforts as evidence of how Internet activism can be effective. He reminded Redditors that Swartz said the reason SOPA legislation was defeated was because “everyone made themselves the hero of their own story.”
In other words, “Everyone took it as their job to save this crucial freedom. They threw themselves into it. They did whatever they could think of to do.”
In addition to the banners and specially designed social media avatars, the group says it is creating widgets participants can install on their websites to encourage visitors to fight against government surveillance for the February protest. There’s also talk about creating memes, websites and other tools to aid participants in spreading their message that it’s time to reform the NSA and fight back against unlawful surveillance practices.
Whether big names like Google and Wikipedia join this protest, like they did with the EFF-led SOPA protest, remains to be seen.