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Tomorrow the Internet Puts Collective Foot Down to Say "No" to Mass Surveillance

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, February 10 2014

Just over two years after the successful action against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), Internet companies are banding together once again to protest mass surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA). The Day We Fight Back was announced January 10, the eve of Aaron Swartz's death, and will take place February 11. More than 5,000 websites will participate tomorrow in a concerted effort to get people to tell Congress to protest mass surveillance, oppose the FISA Improvements Act and support the USA Freedom Act. The Day We Fight Back is an even more ambitious campaign than Stop SOPA; participants are not trying to stop legislation, they're trying to pass it, no small feat in today's political climate.

April Glaser, an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the organizations behind The Day We Fight Back, called this fight a “different beast” entirely.

In a phone interview with techPresident, Glaser explained why The Day We Fight Back is a much bigger task than the SOPA strike. “This is not stopping one bill,” she said. “It's stopping an agency.”

With SOPA and PIPA, activists knew that if they did not act in some way that the bills were in imminent danger of passing. Glaser explained that NSA surveillance is also at a turning point, not in a legislative way—it's not on the brink of passing—but there is momentum.

“All three branches have spoken out against mass spying,” she said. “We see this as a time to get the public to let Congress know that we demand an end. Right now.”

The way the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and others are doing this is by adding a banner to their websites that reads “Dear Internet, we're sick of complaining about the NSA. We want new laws that curtail online surveillance,” with add-ons that let people call or email their legislators.

In 2012, the SOPA strike generated more than eight million attempted calls to government representatives through Wikipedia and other partner sites, and more than four million emails sent through EFF and Demand Progress, among others. Glaser said that one reason The Day We Fight Back celebrates “the win against SOPA and PIPA” is, because it was so effective, that they want to remind people what they can accomplish.

The new laws mentioned include the USA Freedom Act, legislation co-sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy and Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner. Sensenbrenner introduced the Patriot Act in 2001, but after the revelations about the NSA made possible by Edward Snowden he has said the Act has been misinterpreted.

In a statement in January Sensenbrenner said:

As I’ve said since June, I am extremely troubled by President Obama’s misinterpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Both the president’s hand-picked panel and now the PCLOB [Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board] agree that bulk collection of Americans’ phone records has come at a high cost to privacy with little to no benefit to our national security.

The EFF has found that the USA Freedom Act is a “substantial improvement” to NSA business as usual, but they call it “A floor, not a ceiling”:

The bill only addresses a small portion of the problems created by NSA spying and overreaching government secrecy. It does not touch problems like NSA programs to sabotage encryption standards, it does not effectively tackle the issue of collecting information on people outside of the United States, and it doesn't address the authority that the government is supposedly using to tap the data links between service provider data centers, such as those owned by Google and Yahoo.

This is the beginning of the EFF's thorough examination of the USA Freedom Act.

The EFF is confident that the USA Freedom Act will pass in the house, where it has 104 co-signers, but is not sure about the Senate.

The flip side of supporting the USA Freedom Act is opposing Dianne Feinstein's FISA Improvements Act, which many have pointed out would codify the NSA's ability to search records of Americans' phone and email communications without a warrant.

The USA Freedom Act and The Day We Fight Back have the advantage of broad bipartisan support. One conservative group participating tomorrow is Freedom Works, a grassroots organization that generally focuses on lowering taxes and other economic issues.

Freedom Works policy analyst Julie Borowski told techPresident that their conservative and libertarian members pushed the organization to get more involved in civil liberties issues like NSA surveillance after Kentucky Senator Rand Paul's drone filibuster last March.

Freedom Works plans on mobilizing their six million members through an action alert on their website and by posting on social media (they boast 173 thousand Twitter followers and nearly 4.5 million Facebook likes).

On working with more liberal groups, Borowski said, “As long as we agree on the issue there's no reason we can't work together, even if we don't agree on every other issue.”

Other websites that have thrown their support behind The Day We Fight Back include reddit, Upworthy, tumblr, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Greenpeace.

Glaser, for one, said that she will continue “fighting tooth and nail to end mass overbroad surveillance.”

“We don't see this as an overnight change,” Glaser said. “That's not the battlefield.”