Skip to content Skip to footer

Fighting Back Against the NSA’s Dragnet Web: Can Activists Turn the Tide in a Draconian Digital Era?

After a court struck down net neutrality provisions, an online protest follows a critical moment for internet freedom.

Protesters rally against mass surveillance during an event organized by the group Stop Watching Us in Washington, D.C., on October 26, 2013.

As President Obama is set to issue new guidelines Friday for his plans to rein in some of the NSA’s vast dragnet surveillance programs revealed by former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden, a broad coalition of privacy and digital rights organizations is gearing up for a mass online action planned this February 11 to protest ubiquitous electronic surveillance by several governments.

The planned action is reminiscent of the successful internet blackout, which protested the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) bills in 2012, which would have given law enforcement the authority to block web pages containing copyright infringement violations.

The “Day We Fight Back” was announced on the anniversary of digital rights activist Aaron Swartz’s suicide and is dedicated to his legacy. Swartz was a young software engineer and prominent political activist who took his life in 2013 after he was charged with allegedly illegally downloading academic journal articles. The charges carried a 35-year jail sentence and up to $1 million of fines.

Like the SOPA/PIPA protest in 2012, February’s mass online action will pressure U.S. lawmakers to act against government surveillance electronic communications. Since the action was announced, more than 2,000 websites have signed on to take part in the protest, including major internet hubs such as Reddit, Wikipedia and Mozilla.

According to The New York Times, President Obama will eschew a majority of recommendations from his advisers on reforming the NSA’s surveillance programs and will ask Congress to step in to decide some of the most challenging issues and concerns.

He is, according to those who have been briefed, planning to increase restrictions on access to telephone metadata, implement safeguards for non-citizens and propose the creation of a privacy advocate on the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court. But he is not planning to recommend taking the bulk data out of government hands, nor require court permission for government access to business records.

According to the article, the president is expected to announce he will cut back on the number of people whose telephone data can be searched by the NSA, reducing the number of people associated with a suspect who are to be surveilled from three to two. He also plans to reduce the number of years the data collected can be stored.

“His own review group has made some pretty far-reaching recommendations, and I would have thought that at a minimum he would have taken those recommendations seriously. And based on this Times story today, it doesn’t look like he is,” says Faiza Patel, who co-directs the liberty and national security program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “It’s all very well to say, ‘Yes, I welcome a debate.’ But, in fact, the president put in place all of these executive review mechanisms.… It sounds like what he’s going to do is punch most of this to Congress, and that just kind of seems unfortunate to me…. I think he should exhibit a little bit of leadership on this.”

While Patel described Obama’s apparent willingness to impose limits on the number of people whose data can be scrutinized as a step forward for civil liberties, she said the apparent move still doesn’t go far enough because the initial determination about who can be surveilled is not made by a court, but rather by the NSA.

But as the Obama administration appears to be preparing to try to appease civil liberties and privacy advocates with his widely anticipated speech Friday, the announcement of a major day of action in protest of dragnet surveillance could not come at a more critical time for the future of internet freedom and digital rights in the 21st century.

The Death of Net Neutrality May Aid Surveillance

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals dealt a huge blow to net neutrality proponents Tuesday, striking down the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) 2010 Open Internet order, which regulated how broadband service providers can provide access to the internet, preventing them from blocking or discriminating against various forms of internet data transmitted across their networks.

The court ruled, in a case brought against the FCC by Verizon, that the internet is not classified as a utility under federal law and, therefore, broadband providers are not subject to the FCC’s regulations banning financial arrangements with services like Amazon or Netflix to allow them to pay to stream their content on faster broadband “express lanes” on the web.

When the FCC deregulated broadband services under the Bush administration, the commission undermined its own ability to pass net neutrality rules. To impose those rules in 2010, the FCC, under Chairman Julius Genachowski, reclassified broadband services as “information services” rather than telecommunications services, but the federal appeals court ruled the FCC did not have the proper authority under that classification to pass those rules.

“[Genachowski] was just unable to stand up to the industry pressure that he was getting, and so he chose to take this way out by passing rules without reclassifying. And the minute he did … we knew that these rules weren’t going to hold up in court, because they were passed in the wrong way,” said Josh Levy, who is the internet campaign director at Free Press. Free Press is among the organizations endorsing and organizing February 11 mass online action against the NSA.

“[Broadband service providers] want to be in control of so much more, so that they can slice and dice it in a number of ways, offer us packages, and nickel and dime us so that they can make as much as they can,” Levy told Truthout.

But more than corporations being able to pay for privileged access on faster internet lanes, the move could potentially censor sites of dissent on the open web if the broadband service providers so choose.

“We might not even know what we’re not seeing, or we might realize that there’s a website that we’ve come to depend on, say an independent news service, that isn’t operational anymore. In a nightmare scenario, which is totally possible because these rules were struck down, if we are using applications or technologies that these companies don’t like to connect to the internet, they can just block them from connecting to their networks,” Levy says.

Moreover, the types of technologies and applications Levy is talking about include encryption technologies that help protect dissident voices avoid surveillance from government agencies as well as corporations.

Major technologies companies have adopted various encryption standards in the aftermath of the Snowden leaks, and the use of such services are on the rise from the general public.

But now the same telecommunications giants that have worked hand in glove with the NSA by handing over massive, invasive, domestic call records since shortly after 9/11, will be free to make financial arrangements that will privilege other corporations that may be using their own spy networks against innocent Americans.

Will February 11 Echo Success of SOPA/PIPA Blackout?

The Day We Fight Back is not just fighting invasive dragnet surveillance programs, but it also hopes to fight for something — namely the USA Freedom Act.

The USA Freedom Act, authored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), would take action to restrict the NSA and other governmental surveillance programs and give companies a voice in what types of surveillance their products can be used for. If passed, the bill would halt the mass collection of metadata under section 215 of the Patriot Act and allow companies to report the number of FISA letters they receive that request access to their business records, how many of those letters they grant and the number of users who are affected.

“It’s a bill that isn’t going to fix everything that’s wrong with NSA surveillance. Rather it’s going to do some extremely common sense fixes that are modern in nature and should be the first step in what is hopefully a much larger effort to reform NSA surveillance abuses,” says Rainey Reitman, activism director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, another group behind the February 11 action. “I think of it as a floor, not a ceiling.”

Reitman says many of the people who are working on the effort are the same individuals and groups who worked on the SOPA/PIPA blackout in 2012. But because next month’s protest is not taking aim at a specific censorship bill, most companies are not going to be blacking out their websites, Reitman told Truthout. Instead, websites big and small are going to raise awareness about NSA dragnet surveillance programs by highlighting those issues with a banner or embeddable widget somewhere prominent on their front page.

The tactics and ways in which individuals and internet advocacy organizations will participate are numerous, from appeals to call congressional representatives on the issue to physical street protests. “It’s not just one organization telling you how you should be fighting against the NSA surveillance. Rather it’s thousands of people coming up with their own creative ideas, and that’s kind of the beauty of decentralized internet culture.”

We have 3 days to raise $35,000 — we’re counting on your support!

For those who care about justice, liberation and even the very survival of our species, we must remember our power to take action.

We won’t pretend it’s the only thing you can or should do, but one small step is to pitch in to support Truthout — as one of the last remaining truly independent, nonprofit, reader-funded news platforms, your gift will help keep the facts flowing freely.