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The Day We - But Not Wikipedia - Fight Back Against Mass Surveillance

BY Jessica McKenzie | Tuesday, February 11 2014

Screen shot of the defunct Wikipedia planning page for The Day We Fight Back

Drop by the Wikipedia main page today and you will find a featured article on the constellation Perseus. Conspicuously absent is The Day We Fight Back banner so many other websites like reddit, Boing Boing, and Upworthy are flying. Nor did they set Edward Snowden as the featured article, as someone suggested in a thread on what, if any, action should be taken today. Although it was discussed in multiple Wikipedia forums, no consensus was ever reached, and so Wikipedia is sitting this one out.

Wikipedia's absence is all the more jarring because of the way The Day We Fight Back explicitly references the protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA). Wikipedia was one of the most visible participants in that campaign, generating more than eight million calls to Congress alone from their call look up tool.

Reading through the discussion of The Day We Fight Back on Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy (aka Jimbo) Wales' talk page, it is clear that opinions on this subject range from 'We should stage another blackout to raise awareness,' to 'We never should have held a blackout to protest SOPA and PIPA in the first place because it goes against Wikipedia's NPOV (neutral point of view) ethos.'

One suggestion that garnered quite a bit of support came from user Jehochman:

I'll pipe up as a marketing guy. A message is most effective when it matches the format of the media. We're an encyclopedia. On Feb 11, I suggest we fill our front page with articles, blurbs and news about mass spying and privacy. That will send a strong message, and help educate people. It's sort of like what we do on April 1, except serious instead of foolish. [sic]

Those who opposed the measure either cited a need for more time (the conversation took place in mid-January leaving volunteer editors less than a month to prepare) or outright opposition to taking a stance at all.

Wikipedia user Everyking wrote, “Oppose in the strongest possible terms. This is a political statement and we must not take political positions. It is antithetical to our mission.”

Another user, Acather96, added:

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, that's it. It is not a vehicle to promote ANY [sic] political agenda, at all, no matter how nice or nasty it is. If the WMF [Wikimedia Foundation] wants to jump on the bandwagon for this campaign and they feel it is line [sic] with their goal to promote free knowledge, then fine, they can issue statements and do interviews etc., but they're [sic] encyclopedic projects must remain neutral. I opposed the SOPA action, and I will oppose this for the same reason: we must not stray from our original purpose to provide a compendium of neutral free knowledge into some kind of internet activist group. It's an insult to our donors, we promised them that we would not be like all the rest of the internet wikis with clear POV's (e.g. Conservapedia), and would be genuinely neutral on political matters. Please stop.

Still others thought that Wikipedia had an obligation to participate in some way. User HectorMoffet wrote that “It just wouldn't look right for all our closest allies to participate only to have Wikipedia remain silent on an issue of such gravity.”

Considering the fractured quality of the conversation and the fact that it took place on Jimmy Wales' page and not a more central page where more editors would see and participate in the conversation, it is not surprising that no consensus was reached. Wikipedia was not designed to be a platform for organizing, that much is clear.

The two major backers of The Day We Fight Back, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Demand Progress, wrote an open letter to the Wikipedia community. It read, in part:

Wikipedia provides access to material that might be considered subversive, that challenges authority structures, that cuts against what one can learn from government propaganda or mainstream media sources. It is precisely the people who engage in the editing and reading of this sort of material who are the most likely to be chilled—and the most likely to be noticed by the surveillance regime. In other words, the people that Wikipedia most needs to reach are the ones whose freedom is being most threatened.

It is not Wikipedia's responsibility alone to preserve that freedom, but Wikipedia plays an essential part. As the protests against SOPA demonstrated, Wikipedia—with its enormous user base and traffic—can disseminate the information that is essential to a functioning democracy. Wikipedia can direct much-needed attention to the dangers of mass surveillance and pending legislation and policies that would entrench and extend it further.

For what it is worth, Jimmy Wales' company Wikia is participating in The Day We Fight Back, after the Wikia community agreed on the issue.

A round up of other Day We Fight Back actions today:

Alex Byers at Politico reports that although the Reform Government Surveillance Coalition, made up of seven major Internet corporations, supports The Day We Fight Back, that Google and Facebook will not place the anti-NSA banner on their homepages. It appears that AOL, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo have made the same decision.

Tumblr is also supporting The Day We Fight Back, but their participation is limited to a blog post and does not include the banner either.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul emailed supporters this morning to say that he will be filing a class action lawsuit against President Obama and the NSA.

Politico has a Storify of the many United States lawmakers and other public figures who have spoken out against the NSA and mass surveillance on Twitter.

Global Voices has covered some of the global protests against mass surveillance taking place today:

Brazilian netizens are participating in The Day We Fight Back and have created some of their own memes to go along with it:

Cartoon by Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff.

In the Philippines netizens are using the day to protest a cybercrime law nicknamed “cyber martial law” that could be used as a tool for mass surveillance.

In honor of the day, the technology, research and anti-censorship organization ASL19 wrote, “While we stand up against countries like the United States, Canada, and the UK for their violations of our privacy rights, ASL19 urges the world not to forget the circumstances in a country that does not require revelations to reveal the unjust state of privacy and human rights.”

In France, the group leading “le jour où nous contre-attaquons” is crowdfunding an animated film about “privacy, mass surveillance, and the urgency to rethink our relationship with technology.”

A complete list of cryptoparties, protests, hackathons, and “surveillance salons” taking place around the world is available here.

For more background information on The Day We Fight Back, see this previous techPresident post.