What the Mainstream Media Doesn't Understand About the Road to a Society without Mass Surveillance

02/25/2014 04:01 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2014
  • David Segal RI State Representative, Former Congressional Candidate, Demand Progress Exec Director
  • Marvin Ammori In Technology

Beginning June 5, 2013, based on leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the world began learning about US and British mass surveillance programs. These programs target not just potential security threats, but average people around the world suspected of no wrong-doing. Such warrantless, suspicion-less surveillance is a threat to democracy and liberty--and also ineffective and unnecessary for security.

Stopping and reversing mass surveillance requires a massive public response, with leaders within government, within the leading nonprofits, and at the top of industry taking part.

The effort to organize the public and oppose mass surveillance is now snowballing, but is still smaller and moving more slowly than all of us would like--but not than all of us expect. If you've observed or been in invested in mass organizing, online or off, you'll remember the years of pulling together allies, strategizing, and executing leading up to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) blackout (or a major pro-immigration rally, or a major anti-war protest). You don't just recall the crescendo as though it emerged from nothing, you also remember the build.

Whether or not the anti-NSA organizing will succeed remains an open question, but it can't happen overnight. All online organizing is now, understandably, frequently compared to the effort to defeat the SOPA. Yet sparse media coverage of the anti-SOPA cause means people remember the protests against that bill as a one day affair -- a blackout by major web platforms -- even though the blackout was the end of two years of organizing, privately and publicly. It was also the product of opposing a nearly identical bill in the previous Congress, called COICA, and the product of organizing and relationships built since debate over the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998.

In the surveillance world, there was a significant protest against mass spying on February 11th, dubbed The Day We Fight Back (TDWFB). It was a key moment where the advocates in industry and the nonprofit sector energized the most informed and outraged citizens, and others in their orbit.

Activist groups like Demand Progress and the Electronic Frontier Foundation led the way in organizing TDWFB and were joined in the formative stages by platforms like Reddit and BoingBoing and the software development firm ThoughtWorks. The people we were hoping to mobilize were those in the orbit of these organizations and platforms -- people we might call insiders -- but the protest grew to be as substantial as our most optimistic projections.

TDWFB generated almost 100,000 calls to Congress over the course of a day and a half -- the sort of mark that's met by a single issue only a handful of times a year, at best. More than 400,000 additional people signed petitions or sent emails to lawmakers -- and those are just the numbers that protest organizers were tracking directly. These people asked Congress to support the USA FREEDOM Act, the major bi-partisan NSA reform vehicle that stands a legitimate chance of passage. It's sponsored by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Chairman of the Judiciary Committee and Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), who was the lead sponsor of the PATRIOT Act and is furious that his legislation is being used to spy on Americans en masse.

Participation exploded to include thousands of websites and dozens of activist groups. Internet users would see on the order of 100 million impressions of online content about the protest, Congress's phone lines would ring off the hook, with thousands of callers hitting voicemail boxes because there wasn't enough staff to keep up. Many of them were so impassioned that they went on to call district offices instead.

Two dozen or so lawmakers issues statements of support. The Reform Government Surveillance Coalition, which comprises the biggest web platforms including Google, Yahoo, and Facebook endorsed the protest and ran a banner on its site; many of its constituent companies issued individual statements. Google formally endorsed the USA FREEDOM Act that day and emailed millions of activists to ask them to contact Congress, while Twitter tweeted to nearly 29 million people urging them to take action.

So, then: Why did you see a ludicrous piece in the New York Times claiming the Internet didn't "fight back"? Because the reporter, Nicole Perlroth -- and an unfortunate number of her press peers -- just doesn't get how activism works. In particular, the Times reporter has chosen to measure all Internet freedom organizing in comparison to that final act of the SOPA effort -- the aforementioned blackout that took place on January 18th 2012, at the end of years of organizing -- rather than measuring it against the "American Censorship Day" that previous November, or any of the other important activism events along the way during the previous two years. (That New York Times piece is also made a host of factual errors of which the reporter and her editor are aware, but which they refuse to correct. And that paper has a well-studied history of underreporting activism.)

The January 2012 protests against SOPA seemed to come out of nowhere because, sadly, the Times and most other major media outlets ignored the years of activism and opposition leading up to that day, and only covered SOPA when it became too big to ignore. This is likely from a mix of obliviousness to currents of activism operating in plain site on the Internet and, for many of the media companies, the fact that their corporate parents supported the legislation.

So let us provide some context to those who relied on the Times's (non-existent) coverage of SOPA, prior to January 18th. During just the three or four months leading up to the blackout -- after more than a year of regular organizing against SOPA and its predecessor bills, online and in the halls of power -- there were at least three mass activism pushes: The day in October when SOPA was introduced, a day dubbed "American Censorship Day" in November, and the couple of days during which the House Judiciary Committee met to "mark-up" (amend and vote on) the bill. The Chair, Lamar Smith (R-TX) was the sponsor of SOPA, and failed to move it out of his own committee because opposition was so vehement. Each of these pushes was, plus or minus, of the same magnitude of The Day We Fight Back in terms of number of Americans who made a call or sent an email to Congress. By facilitating the building of relationships, experimentation with new campaigning tactics, and spreading awareness of the dangerous aspects of the legislation, these protests built a foundation for what was to come.

Without them, the enormous coalition of individuals, businesses, and officials that came together for the blackout could not have come together.

So in dismissing the work of dozens of activists and hundreds of thousands of Americans who took part in The Day We Fight Back, the Times dismisses precisely the sort of work that led us to the SOPA blackout, and held off SOPA its companion and predecessor bills for long enough that we eventually mustered enough support to kill them. Or, in other words, the Times dismisses the work that made possible the thing for which the Times derides activists for not yet equalling.

Dave Karpf, a professor at George Washington University who studies online social movements put it, the: "The real question to ask about The Day We Fight Back isn't 'how does it compare to the SOPA blackout.' The real question to ask is "so, what's next?"

There's little doubt that there's more to come -- and that foundation built on The Day We Fight Back will help ensure that it's as powerful as possible.