Web-wide protest pushes back against NSA surveillance

Internet activists launched a protest across the web Tuesday encouraging visitors to contact their members of congress in opposition to mass surveillance currently being used by the National Security Agency.

The protest, dubbed The Day We Fight Back, came in response to revelations in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that uncovered widespread warrantless data collection by the NSA.

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The documents generated a slew of mainstream media criticism over government surveillance and kicked off a wave of oppositional action from organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, among the organizations signed on to Tuesday’s digital protest.

“I just want to make very clear that this is the beginning and not the end of our efforts,” said Kade Crockford, director of the ACLU Massachusetts Technology for Liberty Project.

The protest encouraged support of a bill that would curtail the NSA’s unbridled reach and promoted opposition toward attempts to legalize large scale collection of phone records.

The USA Freedom Act ,co-authored by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), aims to limit data collection by federal agencies while providing greater transparency into the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). It also hopes to allow companies to release information regarding inquiries under the Foreign Intelligence Service Act, a piece of legislation heavily modified since 9/11 that allows for widespread intelligence gathering.

“The bill itself is a step in the right direction.” said James O’Keefe, leader of the Massachusetts Pirate Party, a political group focused on civil liberties. “Ultimately, though, we have a constitution that says [the government] can’t do mass surveillance on you,” he said.

Companies brokering personal digital information also have an interest at stake, particularly when the NSA is tapping their data lines.

“That’s why we see companies like Google and Reddit are signing on today,” said Crockford. “They know that it’s in their best interest. They’re not benevolent actors. Mass surveillance is bad for business.”

Other organizations including advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation signed on, while Silicon Valley behemoths like Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft showed support through the Reform Government Surveillance coalition.

At the time of publication only two Massachusetts representatives had not supported the USA Freedom Act, according to Crockford.

“We are heartened that all but two of our congress members have signed on,” Crockford said.

Representatives Niki Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat, and Richard Neal, a Springfield Democrat, were the two hold outs.

Tsongas is “currently reviewing this legislation,” said Michael Hartigan, her communications director, in an email.

Neal’s office did not comment.

Two years ago a similar — albeit more drastic — digital protest took place to oppose the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) when sites including Wikipedia and Google, and thousands of other smaller ones, simultaneously blacked out their pages in opposition to the bill.

News outlets widely reported that the blackout deserved at least partial responsibility for a number of congress members withdrawing their support for SOPA.

Organizers announced the Day We Fight Back on January 10, 2014, one year after the passing of technologist and activist Aaron Swartz who took his own life while facing trial for downloading the contents of the academic catalogue JSTOR from a wiring closet on the MIT campus. Though often associated with Reddit, towards the end of his life Swartz had become better known as an activist for privacy rights and freedom of information.

By 5pm Tuesday, individuals issued more than 55,800 calls and 116,000 emails to legislators just through the web interface at thedaywefightback.org.