Wikimedia, Other Organizations Sue NSA over Net Monitoring
The non-profit behind Wikipedia is joining with eight other organizations in a lawsuit challenging "upstream" surveillance of Internet traffic by the U.S. National Security Agency and other government bodies. Filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Maryland, the complaint alleges that such spying violates First and Fourth Amendment rights to freedom of speech and privacy.
In an op-ed piece published Tuesday in The New York Times, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales and Wikimedia Executive Director Lila Tretikov wrote that the lawsuit, being handled by the American Civil Liberties Union, is aimed at protecting the rights of "the 500 million people who use Wikipedia every month. We're doing so because a fundamental pillar of democracy is at stake: the free exchange of knowledge and ideas."
Other plaintiffs in the case include Human Rights Watch, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Amnesty International USA, PEN American Center, the Global Fund for Women, The Nation magazine, the Rutherford Institute, and the Washington Office on Latin America.
Upstream surveillance, as revealed by documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, collects online communications by tapping directly into the Internet's "backbone." It differs from another program, PRISM, in which the NSA demands data on online communications from a number of major U.S.-based Internet companies.
'A New Angle'
We reached out to Alan Butler, senior counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, to learn how the Wikimedia lawsuit might differ from previous complaints brought against the NSA by free-speech and privacy advocates.
"It's a very interesting case," Butler told us. "It follows on a lot of challenges to different NSA programs...(but) there's definitely a new angle here."
In a previous ACLU lawsuit against the NSA and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the challengers lacked standing to complain about NSA surveillance because they could not prove they had been specific targets of agency spying. This is less likely to be an issue with the latest challenge, as Wikipedia was explicitly named in NSA documents revealed by Snowden.
This means Wikipedia has a "smoking gun" on standing that the Clapper lawsuit lacked, Butler said.
However, another obstacle could still remain for the new Wikimedia complaint, Butler said: the possibility that the court could throw out the lawsuit on state secret grounds. That's what happened last month in another case -- Jewel vs. NSA -- that sought to show that surveillance of AT&T customers violated their Fourth Amendment rights.
The Jewel case, however, would have required the revealing of technical aspects about surveillance that the current Wikimedia complaint might not require, Butler said.
'A Chilling Effect'
The Wikimedia Foundation, along with the other plaintiffs in this new case, alleges that the NSA's upstream surveillance of Internet communications threatens the ability of Wikipedia users to "exchange information in confidence, free from warrantless government monitoring."
"The harm to Wikimedia and the hundreds of millions of people who visit our Web sites is clear: Pervasive surveillance has a chilling effect," Wales and Tretikov said in their op-ed piece Tuesday. "It stifles freedom of expression and the free exchange of knowledge that Wikimedia was designed to enable."
Human Rights Watch, another plaintiff in the complaint, said fears of having their Internet communications intercepted have made it harder for the organization to do its work in many parts of the world.
"Activists in Ethiopia, defense attorneys in France, and officials working in Indonesia won't call or e-mail us sensitive information about ongoing rights violations because they rightly fear surveillance," wrote Dinah PoKempner, general counsel for Human Rights Watch.
"We have to get the facts face-to-face or not at all, and either way, that's costly. People know the domestic government may well have an intelligence partnership with the U.S., and any leak of U.S.-monitored communications may result in arbitrary arrest, prosecution, assault, or worse."