If you visited Reddit, Upworthy, the Daily Kos, or a number of other websites today, you might notice that they are displaying a banner that urges web surfers to "fight back" against Internet surveillance. Or perhaps some of your friends' Twitter avatars are now covered by a #StoptheNSA icon. So what's been going on?
11 February was designated as "The Day We Fight Back" by a broad coalition of activist groups, companies, and online platforms. Organisers are hoping to replicate the response they received for the 2012 Internet "blackout" that targeted the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), which resulted in lawmakers withdrawing both bills.
The effort is also intended to remember activist Aaron Swartz, who took his own life in January 2013. In 2011, Swartz was arrested for downloading 4.8 million articles from JSTOR, a non-profit archive of academic journals, after tapping into the site from a computer wiring closet at MIT. He was charged with four separate felonies that could have landed him in jail for years. Supporters said the punishment was too harsh and in the wake of his death, have been pushing for updates to computer security laws.
So what's the back story on "The Day We Fight Back" and what do organisers hope to accomplish? Read on.
What are organisers fighting back against?
Last year, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden released a treasure trove of classified documents to journalists to shed light on what he said was the NSA's illegal activity. The NSA has defended its actions, arguing that it is sanctioned by Congress and necessary to protect the US from terrorists, but President Obama admitted recently that changes are necessary, at least when it comes to the collection of phone metadata. But things aren't changing fast enough for Internet activists, who hope "The Day We Fight Back" will help spur Congress into real action.
What type of things are they concerned about?
One of the first things the Snowden documents revealed was the collection of phone metadata on a grand scale. In the US, Verizon Communications, for example, was ordered to hand over all of its phone records for a three-month period. The feds argued that the content of these calls was not recorded, but detractors said the demands are overly broad and include data about innocent Americans. Meanwhile, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) can order tech companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and more to hand over customer data, but the secret nature of the court means those companies cannot discuss the details of their cooperation with the feds.
That seems a little sketchy, right?
It's a slippery slope. In the US, if the feds are trying to track down a dangerous criminal and believe they are using Gmail, Facebook, or Outlook to communicate, you don't want to tip off those criminals, so secrecy is key. But the extent of the secrecy provided by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) is a bit extreme, which is why top tech companies asked for permission to reveal more data about national security-related requests in their quarterly transparency reports. The feds offered a compromise whereby companies could mix in national security requests with other non-classified data. But the companies pushed back, and the Justice Department recently granted a compromise: They could break out the data in batches depending on the data revealed.
But that didn't satisfy privacy advocates, right?
Nope, because the data is still being collected; it's just being done in a slightly more transparent manner.
So what's the fix?
The Electronic Frontier Foundation urged supporters to back the USA FREEDOM Act from Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, which it said "could well be our best shot at fixing some of the worst problems with NSA surveillance." It's not perfect, according to the EFF; it doesn't really address "excessive secrecy" or NSA efforts to crack encryption or tap into the data centres of tech firms, among other things. But it "stands in sharp contrast" to a bill from Senator Dianne Feinstein, which organisers say will just bolster existing programs.
How does Aaron Swartz fit into this?
As organisers described it: "Aaron sparked and helped guide the movement that would eventually defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act in January 2012. That bill would have destroyed the Internet as we know it, by blocking access to sites that allowed for user-generated content – the very thing that makes the Internet so dynamic."
As a result, "The Day We Fight Back" is in his honour, as he certainly would've been on the front lines, they said.
How is this similar to the 2012 SOPA/PIPA protest?
Like the SOPA and PIPA blackout, organisers are asking supporters to add a banner to their homepage that says they are "sick of complaining about the NSA," and want new laws to curtail online surveillance.
How does it differ?
In 2012, the protest went the extra step of shutting down popular websites such as Wikipedia for a day, to demonstrate how SOPA and PIPA might impact the web. It also garnered support from major players like Google and Facebook, which didn't shut down their sites, but displayed banners in solidarity with the protest's mission. Today, however, Google is displaying a link to its Internet safety centre on Google.com, and said in a blog post that "we strongly believe that government surveillance programs should operate under a legal framework that is rule-bound, narrowly tailored, transparent, and subject to oversight."
What can I do?
If you don't have a website that can support a banner, organisers are asking people to change their profile photos on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+, or share some anti-surveillance photos posted on the event's website. Any discussion on social media should also include the #StoptheNSA hashtag.