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The Day We Fight Back: Activism Sweeps the Internet with Global Action Against Mass Surveillance

Today privacy advocates are holding one of their biggest online actions so far with “The Day We Fight Back Against Mass Surveillance.”

Nearly a decade after the George W. Bush administration’s warrantless spying program came to light, the issue of mass government surveillance has again sparked a global outcry with the disclosures of whistleblower Edward Snowden. Leaks of National Security Agency files have exposed a mammoth spying apparatus that stretches across the planet, from phone records to text messages to social media and email, from the internal communications of climate summits to those of foreign missions and even individual heads of state. Today privacy advocates are holding one of their biggest online actions so far with “The Day We Fight Back Against Mass Surveillance.” Thousands of websites will speak in one voice, displaying a banner encouraging visitors to fight back by posting memes and changing their social media avatars to reflect their demands, as well as contacting their members of Congress to push through surveillance reform legislation. The action is inspired in part by the late Internet open-access activist Aaron Swartz, who helped set a precedent in January 2012 when more than 8,000 websites went dark for 12 hours in protest of a pair of controversial bills that were being debated in Congress: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA). The bills died in committee in the wake of protests. We discuss today’s global action with Rainey Reitman, activism director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and co-founder of the Freedom of the Press Foundation.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: Next year will mark a decade since the Bush administration’s warrantless spying first came to light. The news the White House authorized surveillance on Americans without court approval shattered the secrecy around the National Security Agency. Until then, many were either unaware of theNSA or just saw it as another outpost of a bloated national security state. But the exposure of its warrantless wiretapping was arguably the biggest scandal of the post-9/11 era—that is, until last year. That’s when Edward Snowden came forward to reveal a mammoth spying apparatus that spans the globe, from phone records to text messages to social media and email, from the internal communications of climate summits to those of foreign missions and even individual heads of state. These revelations have sparked intense public scrutiny, and today advocates are holding one of their biggest online actions so far.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s called “The Day We Fight Back Against Mass Surveillance.” More than 6,000 websites are taking part, including Reddit, Tumblr, Mozilla, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union. The websites will display a banner encouraging visitors to fight back against surveillance. Internet users are encouraged to post memes and change their social media avatars to reflect their demands.

Organizers announced the action on the eve of the death anniversary of the Internet open-access activist Aaron Swartz. He helped set a precedent for such Internet-based protests in January 2012 when over 8,000 websites went dark for 12 hours in protest of a pair of controversial bills that were being debated in Congress: the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, and the PROTECT IP Act, or PIPA. The bills died in committee in the wake of the protests. This clip from the new documentary, The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, describes the successful campaign against SOPA and PIPA.

Wikipedia went black. Reddit went black. Craigslist went black. The phone lines on Capitol Hill flat-out melted. Members of Congress started rushing to issue statements retracting their support for the bill that they were promoting just a couple days ago. And that was when, as hard as it was for me to believe, after all this, we had won. The thing that everyone said was impossible, that some of the biggest companies in the world had written off as kind of a pipe dream, had happened. We did it. We won.

This is a historic week in Internet politics, maybe American politics.

The thing that we heard from people in Washington, D.C., from staffers on Capitol Hill, was they received more emails and more phone calls on SOPA blackout day than they’d ever received about anything. I think that was an extremely exciting moment. This was the moment when the Internet had grown up politically.

It’s easy sometimes to feel like you’re powerless, like when you come out in the streets and you march and you yell, and nobody hears you. But I’m here to tell you today: You are powerful.

That’s a clip from the new documentary, The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, last month. Swartz inspired organizers to create today’s “The Day We Fight Back” protest—thousands of websites speaking in one voice against mass surveillance by the NSA.

We go now to San Francisco, where we’re joined by Rainey Reitman. She is the activism director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, also co-founder of the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Rainey, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of this day, and particularly what you’re targeting in what you’re doing.

RAINEY REITMAN: Thanks so much for having me.

So, The Day We Fight Back is a digital protest, and over 6,000 websites have signed on. And we’re pushing for a number of things, but for people within the United States, we’re really pushing people to contact their members of Congress. We are at sort of a real interesting point in the NSA debate. We have Obama making a few key concessions towards reform. We have review groups and the congressionally appointed oversight board for civil liberties demanding that fairly extensive reforms be made to NSA spying. And we have polls of public opinion showing that overwhelmingly the American people do want reform. And in this landscape, we really have an opportunity to push for congressional action.

And that’s what we’re doing. We’re asking for people to call on Congress to promote the USA FREEDOM Act, which is a very moderate bill that would help to rein in NSA surveillance, and then push for additional reforms to that bill, such as privacy protections for people overseas and ensuring that Internet encryption standards aren’t undermined by the NSA, and then also defeating a bill known as the FISA Improvements Act. That’s a bill that would actually attempt to codify into law mass surveillance, to legalize some of the worst mass surveillance that we’ve seen from the NSA.

AARON MATÉ: Rainey, talk about what visitors to websites are going to be seeing today. And what has the response been of the major Internet companies—Google, Microsoft, Apple—who have been caught up in spying programs but now claim that they want to see reforms, as well?

RAINEY REITMAN: Well, the visitors to websites all over the world, on over 6,000 websites, will see a banner, and within the United States, that banner is going to give them an opportunity to call their member of Congress. It’s actually going to have a script there—you give it your phone number, and then it calls you—or you can email a member of Congress. If you’re coming from overseas, that banner is going to show a global petition against mass surveillance that you can sign onto with thousands of other people around the world. And that petition will then be used to kind of move forward policy debates around opposing mass surveillance

And interestingly, we have seen a lot of these tech companies starting to stand with their users. And this is something that they were a little bit slow to the gate, but in fact, big companies like Facebook, like Google, like Microsoft, like Yahoo, they’ve endorsed this action, in addition to pushing for reform more generally. You can see it—they have a coalition website that they put together called Reform Government Surveillance. That website’s running a banner itself.

AMY GOODMAN: Last month, President Obama unveiled his long-awaited review of the NSA surveillance programs, after Edward Snowden exposed them to global scrutiny. In a move denounced by privacy advocates, Obama refused to end the bulk collection of telephone metadata, saying only he’ll modify it from how it currently exists.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I am therefore ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk metadata program as it currently exists, and establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata. This will not be simple.

AMY GOODMAN: In an interview on the German channel ARD, Edward Snowden reacted to Obama’s speech.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: It was clear from the president’s speech that he wanted to make minor changes to preserve authorities that we don’t need. The president created a review board from officials that were personal friends, from national security insiders, former deputy of the CIA—people who had every incentive to be soft on these programs and to see them in the best possible light. But what they found was that these programs have no value. They’ve never stopped a terrorist attack in the United States, and they have marginal utility, at best, for other things. The only thing that the Section 215 phone metadata program—actually, it’s a broader metadata program, a bulk collection—bulk collection means mass surveillance—program—was in stopping or detecting a $8,500 wire transfer from a cab driver in California. And it’s this kind of review where insiders go, “We don’t need these programs. These programs don’t make us safe. They take a tremendous amount of resources to run, and they offer us no value.” They go, “We can modify these.” The National Security Agency operates under the president’s executive authority alone. He can end or modify or direct a change in their policies at any time.

AARON MATÉ: That’s Rainey Reitman—I’m sorry, that’s Edward Snowden reacting to President Obama’s speech last month. Rainey Reitman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, your group gave Obama a score of 3.5 out of 12, 12 points that you wanted to see him make in reforming NSA surveillance. Where did you think he met the bar, and where do you think he failed?

RAINEY REITMAN: Sure. When it came to Obama’s promisesNSA reform, I want to acknowledge that he did do a couple of things. I mean, one thing that he clearly did do was he worked to reform the FISA court, that he—that’s the secret court that signs off on the NSA surveillance programs right now and has been heavily criticized by civil liberties groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, because it’s so untransparent and because it’s been creating case law and not making it available to the public. And Obama did a couple good things there. He put a individual into the FISA court who would champion civil liberties, and that’s a really important first step, and I don’t want to under—I want to underscore that. And then he also insured that the FISA court would have a certain amount of transparency, so that once a year they would look to declassify some of the FISA court opinions. So that was an important step. And here and there we gave him credit for a few other things.

However, one thing we were particularly looking for from Obama was a promise that even as he transitions out the telephone metadata program, the program collecting the telephone records of millions of Americans who aren’t suspected of a crime—and he’s been under so much pressure for that—and as he’s transitioning away from that program, which I think we absolutely should applaud, that he isn’t going to turn that into a tech mandate, a mandate that technology companies like AT&T serve as our technological Big Brother, forced by the government to maintain the records and then tasking them to basically serve the same function that the National Security Agency was serving, where they were collecting a database of people’s phone records and then making that available to the government later. And he didn’t make that promise. In fact, that’s very much still on the table, and it’s something that civil liberties advocates are pushing back against in every way imaginable.

AMY GOODMAN: Rainey Reitman, this day of action is opposing the FISA [Improvements] Act. You’re speaking to us from San Francisco, where Electronic Frontier Foundation is based. It’s also the state of California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who is the sponsor of this bill. Can you explain exactly what your concerns are?

RAINEY REITMAN: Well, Amy, the concept of the FISA Improvements Act can seem kind of appealing: At first you might think it’s a reform bill. But, in fact, what the FISA Improvements Act does is it attempts to codify into law, so it attempts to make legal, the types of mass surveillance that have so outraged people around the world. So, the telephone metadata program, that’s something that under the FISA Improvements Act, if it were to pass, the government could argue would be legal. And it would also sort of give a green light and encourage the National Security Agency to engage in even more types of surveillance. For example, an Internet metadata surveillance program could be seen as legal under this, if this bill were to pass. That’s a program that the National Security Agency tried years ago and then abandoned because it was useless. And so, this is exactly what we don’t want to see as a response to the recent revelations about our government surveillance programs. We don’t want to lose this opportunity to reform on a basically—what many people are calling a “fake fix” bill.

AARON MATÉ: Rainey, on the issue of the bulk collection of phone records, you’ve had two courts so far saying it’s legal, one federal court saying it’s not. In Obama’s speech, he said that these records are only queried if there is a specific lead. So, what is your problem with that? Why should the government not be able to hold records, when, as they say, they’re only looking at them if they have specific intelligence to go after criminal activity?

RAINEY REITMAN: Well, I understand what the president is trying to say, and I do think that, you know, the instinct is good. They are trying to protect the privacy of people. But it’s important to remember that, you know, the thing here is that the Fourth Amendment isn’t about when you search records, it’s really about the point of collection. The Fourth Amendment is very clear that you can’t walk into people’s houses and collect all their papers and then, you know, as long as you put them in a drawer and don’t look at them, it doesn’t actually count as being invasive to people’s privacy. If we want to have a strict understanding of the constitutional protections that Americans have, we really need to ensure that we aren’t engaged in dragnet surveillance programs that collect information on people who aren’t suspected of any crime. That’s, in many ways, the core complaint that people from both sides of the political spectrum have about this program, in addition to ongoing concerns that it’s frankly not proven to be useful in seven years.

AMY GOODMAN: The USA PATRIOT Act was sponsored by Senator Sensenbrenner. Now he joins with—Congressman Sensenbrenner. Now he and Senator Leahy are joining with together in introducing what’s called the USA FREEDOM Act. Explain how the interests of conservatives come together with people across the political spectrum on this and what exactly the USA FREEDOM Act does.

RAINEY REITMAN: Well, Amy, the bill is very much a bipartisan bill. It’s been extremely striking to see people who have been very far on either side of the political spectrum uniting in response to theNSA surveillance debate and pushing for fairly extensive reforms in the form of the USA FREEDOM Act. This is a bill that’s still in committee and is still seeking co-sponsors, but it seems to have a lot of momentum. And the implication is that this is a vehicle that might move forward and actually rein in National Security Agency abuses.

The bill would do a variety of things, and I would urge viewers to take some time to get to know it a little bit better. But to go through just a few of the things it would do, it would change the language of Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. That’s the section of law that the government is arguing gives them the right to collect our telephone metadata, all our call records. It would change that to strengthen the language to make it more difficult for the government to sweep up the phone records of people not suspected of any crime. It would also make adjustments to additional parts of our surveillance law, and it would increase the amount of transparency we have around national security letters. Those are the secretive orders that the FBI will send out to service providers, such as email service providers, requesting information on their users. And it will give additional authority to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. That’s the oversight board that’s supposed to ensure that the government isn’t trampling on the civil liberties of Americans and people worldwide.

So, I do think that this bill does a few substantive things, but civil liberties advocates really see this as a floor and not a ceiling, that the USA FREEDOM Act should be a very moderate first step towards reforming NSA surveillance abuses, but it shouldn’t be the end of the discussion. In fact, what we really want are additional protections, protections such as ensuring that people all over the world are not subject to mass, suspicionless surveillance by the National Security Agency, and ensuring that, for example, the National Security Agency isn’t undermining Internet encryption standards, which we’re all relying on to ensure our communications are safe.

AMY GOODMAN: Rainey Reitman, we want to thank you for being with us, activism director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, co-founder of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, speaking to us from San Francisco.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, you’ll find out what the “sixth extinction” is all about. We’ll speak with New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert. Stay with us.

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