Wikimedia files suit against NSA over internet spying and collecting personal information



Eight other organizations have joined the online encyclopedia company against the NSAs PRISM program they believe is unconstitutional


On March 10, Wikimedia Foundation, the organization that runs Wikipedia, announced they are filing suit against the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Department of the Justice (DOJ). In their statement, Michelle Paulson, senior legal counsel, and Geoff Brigham, general counsel, said the purpose of the suit is to challenge the NSAs mass surveillance of the internet.

“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. We are joined by eight other organizations and represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.”

The other litigants filing suit along with Wikimedia include the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International USA, Pan American Centre, Global Fund for Women, The Nation Magazine, The Rutherford Institute, and the Washington Office on Latin America.

Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, said “We’re filing suit today on behalf of our readers and editors everywhere”.

“Surveillance erodes the original promise of the internet: an open space for collaboration and experimentation, and a place free from fear.”

More than 75,000 volunteer editors from around the world contribute to Wikipedia each month. The site contains some 34 million unique articles.

“Privacy is the bedrock of individual freedom. It is a universal right that sustains the freedoms of expression and association. These principles enable inquiry, dialogue, and creation and are central to Wikimedia’s vision of empowering everyone to share in the sum of all human knowledge. When they are endangered, our mission is threatened,” the statement reads.

“If people look over their shoulders before searching, pause before contributing to controversial articles, or refrain from sharing verifiable but unpopular information, Wikimedia and the world are poorer for it.”

The NSA’s internet surveillance program, known as PRISM, became public in June 2013. It permitted the organization to infiltrate US-based internet service providers and gather personal information about individual users. The program operates under the authority of the 2008 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments Act (FAA). The year after Wikimedia approached the ACLU to consider suing the NSA.

“The FAA authorizes the collection of these communications if they fall into the broad category of “foreign intelligence information” that includes nearly any information that could be construed as relating to national security or foreign affairs,” said Paulson and Brigham.

“The program casts a vast net, and as a result, captures communications that are not connected to any “target,” or may be entirely domestic. This includes communications by our users and staff.”

Lila Tretikov, executive director of Wikimedia, said “by tapping the backbone of the internet, the NSA is straining the backbone of democracy”.

“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.”

Paulson and Brigham believe that the NSA is operating this program of mass surveillance under the assumption that the FAA gives it the widest possible freedom to monitor and determine who constitutes a threat and who doesn’t “with little regard for probably cause of proportionality”.

“We believe that the NSA’s current practices far exceed the already broad authority granted by the U.S. Congress through the FAA … we believe that these practices violate the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech and association, and the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure.”

This is not the first time that the legality of the NSA and its surveillance practices has been challenged in court. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court heard Amnesty v. Clapper but the case was dismissed because the court believed Amnesty International lacked ‘standing’ which means a party must demonstrate they’ve incurred harm to file suit.

The Supreme Court argued that “the claims of the challengers that they were likely to be targets of surveillance were based too much on speculation and on a predicted chain of events that might never occur, so they could not satisfy the constitutional requirement for being allowed to sue”.

Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote for the majority opinion, said “respondents cannot manufacture standing merely by inflicting harm on themselves based on their fears of hypothetical future harm that is not certainly impending”.

Justice Breyer, however, who wrote for the dissenting opinion, said “it is as likely to take place as are most future events that commonsense inference and ordinary knowledge of human nature tell us will happen”.

Wikimedia believes they have more than enough evidence to establish standing in court.

“The 2013 mass surveillance disclosures included a slide from a classified NSA presentation that made explicit reference to Wikipedia, using our global trademark. Because these disclosures revealed that the government specifically targeted Wikipedia and its users, we believe we have more than sufficient evidence to establish standing,” Paulson and Brigham wrote.

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