Online activists launch Will enough people care?

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on June 11, 2013

From The News Desk

After learning that the National Security Agency may be engaged in a mammoth program to mine vast amounts of telecommunications data to facilitate terrorism investigations, snooping on phone calls, and monitoring Americans' online behavior, activists drafted a formal letter and petition demanding that Congress halt these activities. The coalition launched this morning and quickly lined up the support of open-access powerhouses like the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, Mozilla, the ACLU, and the World Wide Web Foundation.

The letter called for the immediate halt of the government sanctioned surveillance programs that came to light last week. It reads: “We are calling on Congress to take immediate action to halt this surveillance and provide a full public accounting of the NSA's and the FBI's data collection programs.”

Beyond just halting this specific program, is also calling for dramatic action to ensure that nothing like this happens again. This includes reform of both the FISA Amendment Act and the USA PATRIOT Act, the formation of a new congressional investigative committee to "reveal to the public the extent of domestic spying," as well as general accountability for all public servants involved.

Rainey Reitman, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s activism director, sees further involvement from the public as necessary to keep the initiative moving forward. One idea she divulged was a campaign “where people actually pick up their phones and call Washington.”

It goes without saying that the organization will have its work cut out for it, and the biggest roadblock, ironically, may be public opinion about whether NSA surveillance is a necessity to maintain public safety. One recent Washington Post-Pew Poll claims that 45 percent of all Americans are okay with the government monitoring online activities, if it prevents another terrorist attack. In addition, 56 percent of Americans felt that the NSA accessing telephone call records of millions of citizens to be "acceptable."

The coalition is already working to  interrogate the conventional wisdom of "more surveillance equals fewer terrorists and a safer country." Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute consider this and other such polls as just plain unhelpful with the problems at hand. "It’s like asking, are you willing to pay more taxes to be safer? In the abstract that question is meaningless," he explained. "How much more are we paying? And how much safer is it making us?"

Joshua Levy of Free Press Action Fund went even further along those lines, saying that if Americans really knew the extent of these programs they would unquestionably be outraged. "That’s one of the reasons why this coalition has launched," he said, "to cut through the noise."

Throughout today's press conference, many involved alluded to whether large Internet companies would join the campaign. Alex Fowler of Mozilla was optimistic on this count. “On an individual level we had a number of conversations with people in the entrepreneurial community," Fowler said. "And I think there is a growing sense of concern and outrage. “ However, no official affiliations with any Silicon Valley giants have been announced. Fowler and the others believe that the inclusion of online powerhouses is a distinct possibility. “We will be working with them to bring them in,” he explained.

If is able to enlist the ranks of companies like Google and Facebook, then perhaps we’d be able to see real momentum for his campaign. Until then, there are a lot of unanswered questions, in particular concerning how Congress will responds to this letter, and whether Levy is correct in his assertion that Americans will not accept the compromise of online privacy as the status quo.

[Image via EFF]