Websites look to 'harness the outrage'

Thousands of websites on Tuesday will take a stand against government surveillance by plastering protests across their home pages.

Tech companies and civil liberties organizations are hoping the demonstration, called The Day We Fight Back, will replicate their success in defeating the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) in 2012.


This time activists are focusing their energy on supporting the USA Freedom Act, which would end or curtail many of the most controversial surveillance programs at the National Security Agency and elsewhere. 

“The idea is to really harness the outrage of the Internet community in speaking out in one big voice on Feb. 11,” said Rainey Reitman, the director of activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The protest comes nearly a month after President Obama announced a handful of changes to the embattled spy agency’s most controversial practices. Critics said the changes weren’t nearly enough.

"Expansive surveillance programs damage user trust, stifle innovation, and risk balkanization of the Internet,” said Chris Riley, a senior policy engineer at the software company Mozilla, in a statement to The Hill. 

“The administration's response so far has been to leave these harmful programs largely intact, make minor changes and improve oversight to a small degree. This perpetuates a ‘collect everything’ culture, rather than an intelligence agency that puts respect for human rights at its core.”

Supporters of legislative measures like the USA Freedom Act, which would end some of the snooping entirely, say major changes are necessary to protect people’s privacy.

“I think we’re at this very difficult point where Obama has said, ‘This is what I’m going to reform: One, two, three.’ And the public asked for one through 15,” Reitman said.

“We saw what the president can do. That’s it. We’re not going to get more from President Obama. Now it’s up to Congress. That’s why we’ve got to put so much pressure on them right now.”

More than 4,500 websites have pledged to help people contact their representatives in Congress to push for the Freedom Act, which was authored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Many sites are planning to post a banner on their pages with a widget so people can make a phone call or send an email to the lawmakers’ offices.

“Dear Internet, we’re sick of complaining about the NSA,” the banner reads. “We want new laws that curtail online surveillance. Today we fight back.”

Advocacy groups across the political spectrum, from the environmentalist organization Greenpeace to the conservative FreedomWorks have signed onto the push. 

In addition to connecting people to their members of Congress, organizers are also listing a number of in-person protests and pushing a set of principles to help foreign users address surveillance in their own countries.

“We know it’s an issue that’s really important to a lot of our users, both internationally and domestically,” said Erik Martin, the general manager of the social news site Reddit.

U.S. tech companies have said that news of the NSA’s activities, revealed in documents leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden, has caused people around the world to distrust them.

“It hasn’t been good for U.S. tech companies, and it hasn’t been good for the brand of the United States that we’ve all sort of built our companies on,” Martin said.

Organizers of the protest have a model they’d like to replicate.

In 2012, a wide array of popular websites teamed up to fight PIPA and SOPA, which lawmakers pushed as a way to tamp down on online piracy.

Opponents said the legislation would have stifled free speech, and staged a “blackout” on the Web that led to lawmakers abandoning the bills in droves.

“They were very effective” in that battle, said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who opposed the bills in 2012 and is one of the more than 120 co-sponsors of the USA Freedom Act in the House.

“The echo chamber they created with the public, the persistence and a volume of opposition that reached all the congressional offices was pretty impressive.”

Reddit’s Martin said companies in that fight managed to “get perhaps an unprecedented amount of people” to look at the legislation.

“That’s the important part to replicate, just that civic engagement,” he said.

Tuesday’s push won’t be an exact copy of the demonstrations against SOPA and PIPA.

The previous effort got a boost from big-name backers like Wikipedia, which went dark for a day, and Google, which stripped a black bar across the logo on its home page. Neither company is taking part in the NSA protest.

“Wikipedians on English Wikipedia, after a lengthy discussion on the matter, decided that it is not appropriate for the project to get involved in this protest,” Wikimedia Foundation spokesman Jay Walsh said in an email to The Hill.

“This does not mean that Wikipedians will not restart a new discussion. Often there may be a series of discussions,” he added. “But at this time, it appears this is the conclusion of Wikipedians involved in the discussion.”

Organizers like Reitman, who noted that the fight against SOPA and PIPA grew over many months, said those companies’ decisions shouldn’t impact their effort.

“If they don’t show up for something on this particular day, we may not know until the last minute whether or not they’re getting involved, and frankly they may get involved in future actions,” she said. “I also think it’s very valuable for this to be a community-driven protest with regular everyday citizens being at the front of this fight, rather than big tech companies.”

Reitman said organizers are determined to see that Obama’s NSA reforms aren’t the end of the line.

“We really don’t want these first important but, in many ways, modest reforms to be the end of the NSA fight,” she added.