The day we fought back

Something extraordinary happened last week: Organizations, major corporations, and activists made it clear that they're prepared to engage in a coordinated effort to rein in the NSA's unconstitutional mass spying programs. 

On Tuesday, Feb. 11, dubbed by activists "The Day We Fight Back" (against mass surveillance), Americans placed nearly 100,000 phone calls to Congress, with almost 200,000 more generating emails.  

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These were simply those constituent contacts that were trackable by the central organizers of the event, with ample evidence that a significant number of additional activity took place, with calls spilling out of clogged Capitol Hill phone lines into district offices.

They called to demand an end to broad, suspicion-less spying -- specifically via passage of the USA FREEDOM Act -- and to urge opposition to the so-called FISA Improvements Act, which has been offered by the leading members of the House and Senate intelligence committees and would entrench and expand the existing surveillance regime.

It was perhaps the largest concentrated outpouring of support for privacy rights in the history of our country.  But, one hopes, it won't hold that record for long.  

For while the numbers from last week's effort are quite impressive, the day's purpose was not only to bring immediate pressure to bear, but also to build a foundation for deeper and broader activism over months to come.  It was but a taste of what might manifest if we don't see the adoption of meaningful measures to curtail a surveillance industrial complex run amok.

The day's activities represented the formative stages of an alliance between organizations, activists, and companies who are willing to fight side by side for the long haul.  The effort was organized by grassroots groups like Demand Progress and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and secured the support of other mass membership organizations from across the political spectrum, like the ACLU and CREDO and also the Libertarian Party and FreedomWorks.  The Reform Government Surveillance -- the coalition of major web platforms -- endorsed the effort, and the companies that comprise RGS offered more than just paper support: Over the course of the day, Google announced its backing for the USA FREEDOM Act and encouraged an email list of millions of activists who engaged in the fight against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in 2012 to take action against suspicion-less surveillance.  Twitter urged the 29 million followers of the @Twitter handle to do the same.  Dozens of lawmakers issued statements of support.  More than 6,000 sites, large and small, hosted banners or other widgets, seen tens of millions of times over the course of the day.

The coalition has broadened substantially since the first Snowden leaks were made public in June of last year.  We will build on last week's efforts, just as The Day We Fight Back built on wave of activism that began In the weeks following the revelations, when the order of 500,000 Americans signed on to the Stop Watching Us coalition statement in opposition to mass spying.  In July, we came within a handful of votes of compelling passage of the Amash-Conyers amendment to defund the NSA's bulk data collection programs -- and enough opponents of that amendment have indicated that they regret their no-votes that it would pass if it came up again today.  In October, nearly 5,000 of us rallied through the streets of Washington, DC.  

Now the USA FREEDOM Act stands poised to begin its march towards passage this winter and spring, with House leadership well aware that if it tries to block a vote, the legislation would likely pass as a floor amendment: Amash amendment supporters plus USA FREEDOM cosponsors together comprise a majority of members of the House. The tens of thousands of constituent calls directed at the Senate last week will serve to facilitate the work of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) as he strives to secure votes for his Senate bill.  Our swelling ranks of mass surveillance opponents will stand with Leahy, House sponsor James Sensenbrenner, and other supporters every step of the way.

While we are optimistic about the potential for passage of the USA FREEDOM Act, it is a truism that it is easier prevent the passage of legislation than to get a bill passed.  We are fortunate then, insomuch as should our efforts to pass meaningful reform legislation not vest this year, we will be left with opportunities put an end to the abuses of the surveillance state by blocking the passage of legislation --- foremost in the form of the PATRIOT Act's 2015 reauthorization.  Astute observers will recall the near failure of such reauthorization in late 2010 and early 2011, when there was widespread knowledge of its abuse neither within nor without the halls of power.  By next spring the burgeoning coalition that announced itself last week will be even stronger, and will be prepared to assert itself once again.

Segal is executive director of Demand Progress.