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Activists Plan July 4 Blitz Online and Off To Oppose NSA's Mass Surveillance

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, July 2 2013

Photo: Flickr/Frederic Jacobs

The group of activists and Web companies that came together last year to fight the implementation of an Internet "black list" are starting their engines again in what looks to be a large-scale campaign — both online and off — to convince Americans that the National Security Agency's surveillance activities are unconstitutional and should be investigated.

Fight for the Future, a tiny non-profit in Worcester, Mass., has enlisted the support of some of the most popular U.S. Web sites to urge their viewers to contact Congress to take action to curtail the NSA's electronic surveillance activities. 4Chan, Boing Boing, the Cheezburger Network, Fark.com, Imgur, Mozilla, Namecheap, Reddit, and Wordpress are just a few of the entities who have pledged to either place an ad on their front pages, or write a blog post on July 4 asking users to take action.

It's not clear whether Tumblr will participate, although it was one of the most proactive members of the anti SOPA/PIPA coalition claiming to be fighting on behalf of its users for Internet freedom before it was acquired by Yahoo. Some of the companies that have signed up, such as 4Chan, will feature some code and an image that will drive viewers to Fight for the Future's Web page, which asks visitors to take a range of actions, said Evan Greer, Fight for the Future's campaign manager. They range from simply sharing and publicizing the campaign, to attending a rally, publishing a tweet, calling their member of Congress, and donating so that the campaign can air television ads on local television stations.

Other participating organizations include Demand Progress, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, MoveOn.org and the Tor project.

"Given the number of large Web sites and companies supporting us, I think a lot of people are going to see this message on the Fourth of July," Greer said in an interview.

"What the U.S. government is doing is clearly in violation of its own constitution," he added. "They're violating the Fourth Amendment. They're conducting massive surveillance that's not based on individual warrants, or probably cause, so they're violating their own laws."

Over the course of the past month, The Guardian and The Washington Post have been publishing stories that outline how the NSA collects the metadata on millions of Americans' phone calls, stores them, and searches them under certain conditions. The stories also outline an Internet surveillance scheme that enables the NSA to trawl through the content of non-Americans' online communications. More recent stories suggest that some Americans' communications inadvertently get caught up in that system. In a recent letter to Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper effectively admitted that the NSA does in effect compile dossiers on Americans because of the stockpiling of information on their calling activities.

In addition to the companies, more than 30,000 sites across the Web have installed code distributed by Fight for the Future's Internet Defense League project, meaning that they'll be displaying the text of the Fourth Amendment on July 4th as a reminder of U.S. citizens' privacy rights. And 3.5 million people have joined a Thunderclap campaign, meaning that all those people have scheduled a tweet protesting the surveillance simultaneously on July 4th.

"We are at the moment where we decide if the government should have the power to track, target, profile, and deem suspicious any one of us based on our small everyday movements," wrote Holmes Wilson and Tiffiniy Cheng in an e-mail sent out to supporters on Monday. "The first in line are probably the journalists we depend on, [and] any of our friends or family who are even slightly political. This is why privacy matters -- it does not allow the government to unreasonably persecute anyone."

(US officials testifying in Congress have said that the NSA's surveillance programs have helped the U.S. government foil plots, and that safeguards are in place to prevent abuses.)

Nevertheless, several groups and legal academics continue to charge that the nature of these activities are unconstitutional and overstep the bounds of what's acceptable. Even Rep. James Sensenbrenner, the Wisconsin Republican who was a staunch supporter of law enforcement authorities during the re-authorization process for his bill, the 2004 USA PATRIOT Act, has expressed shock at the breadth of the NSA's activities. He recently wrote in the Guardian that "Congress intended to allow the intelligence communities to access targeted information for specific investigations. How can every call that every American makes or receives be relevant to a specific investigation?"

The organizing of these online activities complement the more than 80 offline protests that have sprouted up on Reddit and grown organically since after the initial news of the surveillance activities broke mid-June. Greer said that the online effort was meant to amplify those offline activities, organized by a group calling themselves Restore the Fourth. Both that group and another large coalition of activists organizing a campaign they're calling Stop Watching Us have been building up momentum to push Congress to act for the past several weeks. More than half a million people have signed an open letter to Congress through Stop Watching Us, asking its members to reform the nation's surveillance law to ban blanket surveillance activities.*

Fight for the Future is also trying to crowdfund a July 4 television campaign to be aired on local television markets across the country using Louder. They're trying to raise $25,000 to fund the campaign.

Although many Americans are upset about the news of the NSA's surveillance, a Pew poll conducted shortly after the news broke showed that the American populace is divided on the merits of the program. The poll found that 56 percent of Americans said NSA tracking of Americans' phone records "is an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism." Forty-one percent — "a substantial minority," per Pew — said it was "unacceptable." Meanwhile, Pew also found that 52 percent of Americans say the government should not be able to "monitor everyone's email to prevent terrorism."

*This post has been updated to include Stop Watching Us, which has been working hard behind the scenes to keep this issue on reporters' radars.