The Wikimedia Foundation (“Wikimedia”), parent organization of ubiquitous online encyclopedia Wikipedia, has announced that it has teamed up with eight other organizations to file a suit against the National Security Agency (NSA) and Department of Justice (DOJ) in the U.S., as it looks to “challenge upstream mass surveillance.”
The case in question, of course, relates to NSA contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaks to the media, which started back in 2013 and unearthed a myriad of global surveillance programs, some run in cahoots with governments around the world.
“Our aim in filing this suit is to end this mass surveillance program in order to protect the rights of our users around the world,” explains Wikimedia’s Michelle Paulson, senior legal counsel, and Geoff Brigham, general counsel, in a co-authored blog post.
Wikimedia’s lawsuit seeks to challenge the “large-scale search and seizure of Internet communications,” which is often called “upstream surveillance.”
Much of the data-gathering under the NSA’s direction was captured using the 2008 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments Act (FAA), and involves digging deep into the fabric of the Internet to intercept communications with those outside the United States. However, a by-product of the programs was that it caught all kinds of information far and wide — including purely domestic data. “This includes communications by our users and staff,” notes Wikimedia.
“By tapping the backbone of the Internet, the NSA is straining the backbone of democracy,” Lila Tretikov, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, says. “Wikipedia is founded on the freedoms of expression, inquiry, and information. By violating our users’ privacy, the NSA is threatening the intellectual freedom that is central to people’s ability to create and understand knowledge.”
The eight other organizations Wikimedia is partnering with for the suit are the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International USA, Pen American Center, Global Fund for Women, the Nation Magazine, the Rutherford Institute, and Washington Office on Latin America.
The nine companies will be represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a nonprofit organization that strives to “preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.”
This isn’t the first time the ACLU has targeted the NSA — back in 2007 it brought a case against the agency relating to the “Terrorist Surveillance Program” (TSP), with the United States Court of Appeals ultimately ruling against ACLU due to lack of standing — a legal concept that stipulates the plaintiff must be able to demonstrate sufficient “harm.” And in 2013, in a case known as Clapper v. Amnesty International USA, the U.S. Supreme Court again dismissed a challenge to the FAA, because the parties in that case were again found to lack “standing.”
So will Wikimedia and co. stand a better chance of successfully challenging the NSA on this occasion? It believes so. “The 2013 mass surveillance disclosures included a slide from a classified NSA presentation that made explicit reference to Wikipedia, using our global trademark,” says Wikimedia. “Because these disclosures revealed that the government specifically targeted Wikipedia and its users, we believe we have more than sufficient evidence to establish standing.”
In the wake of the Snowden revelations, the Wikimedia Foundation was strong in its condemnation of the NSA’s surveillance program, making specific reference to XKeyscore, a tool used by the NSA to collect “nearly everything a user does on the Internet.” As such, Wikimedia expedited its planned shift to the more secure HTTPS protocol, something it had already offered but not by default, while also denying being complicit in any data-gathering exercises initiated by the NSA. Elsewhere, Wikimedia also recently came out in support of Twitter’s so-called fight for transparency, an in-motion lawsuit filed against the DOJ over national security requests.
As for its own fight, you can read the full complaint from Wikimedia and eight other plaintiffs here.