Surveillance Protests Go Global

Tech companies, advocacy groups, and Internet users rally to demand that governments limit online surveillance.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

February 11, 2014

3 Min Read

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On Tuesday, a coalition of companies and advocacy groups have scheduled a series of events around the world to urge governments to reform surveillance practices. The protest against mass surveillance, inspired by the months of revelations about the reach of the US National Security Agency and designated "The Day We Fight Back," was announced last month on the anniversary of the death of technology activist Aaron Swartz. It is also intended as a reminder of the defeat two years ago of the Stop Online Piracy Act, a recent high-water mark for online activism.

By midday Pacific Time, the coalition's website said that it has facilitated more than 37,900 calls and over 86,000 emails to legislators. A Google search for the JavaScript code particular to the coalition's protest banners suggests almost 1,000 of them have been placed on websites. Two dozen protests, rallies, meetings, and talks have been planned.

Participating companies include Automattic, CloudFlare, DuckDuckGo, Mozilla, Reddit, ThoughtWorks, and Tumblr, among others. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Democracy & Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Greenpeace are some of the advocacy groups involved.

Joining the protest are the major technology companies that banded together previously as the Reform Government Surveillance coalition: AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Twitter. The companies fear that unrestrained mass surveillance programs, such as those run by the NSA and other governments, will limit the willingness of businesses and consumers to entrust their data to online service providers.

Google VP of public policy Susan Molinari said in a blog post that, while Google acknowledges the security issues faced by countries around the globe, the company believes threats should be dealt with through a fixed legal framework that's narrowly tailored, transparent, and subject to oversight.

Molinari says Google supports the passage of the USA Freedom Act, introduced last October, to limit bulk data collection and to add greater oversight and transparency to government surveillance programs. She also called for the passage of proposed reforms of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), to ensure that authorities obtain a warrant before demanding user data from online service providers.

Last month, President Obama announced five surveillance reforms intended to address concerns raised by critics of the government's intelligence-gathering practices. Some of changes he promised -- specifically, an end to the current way the government collects bulk telephone metadata -- overlap with the USA Freedom Act. But overall, the reforms fall far short of what the Internet community would like to see. A Day We Fight Back scorecard of the reforms rates them 3.5 out of 12.

Fighting back, it seems, will require more than a day.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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