The Wikimedia Foundation — the nonprofit organization behind Wikipedia — is suing the National Security Agency (NSA) and the US Department of Justice over the NSA’s mass surveillance program.
It’s teaming up with eight other organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International USA, to challenge the NSA’s use of upstream surveillance to spy on correspondence between Web users in the US and overseas.
Wikimedia says that the intelligence agency’s methods captures communications by its users and staff, thereby violating their privacy and “threatening the intellectual freedom that is central to people’s ability to create and understand knowledge.”
The organization says that it’s important for it to maintain a private and safe space for Wikipedia editors to discuss and share content when contributing to the free online encyclopedia. With the NSA watching internal communications, readers and editors may be deterred from participating in the process of building and maintaining the site.
In an op-ed post in today’s edition of The New York Times, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales described how this might be harmful, with an example focused around the Arab uprising in 2011:
“So imagine, now, a Wikipedia user in Egypt who wants to edit a page about government opposition or discuss it with fellow editors. If that user knows the NSA is routinely combing through her contributions to Wikipedia, and possibly sharing information with her government, she will surely be less likely to add her knowledge or have that conversation, for fear of reprisal.”
Wikimedia believes that the NSA’s practices violate the US Constitution’s First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech and association, and the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure.
Amnesty International USA had a US Supreme Court case against Director of National Intelligence James Clapper dismissed in 2013, because the former lacked standing, i.e. any proof that it suffered some kind of harm in order to file a lawsuit.
This time around, Wikimedia believes it has enough firepower to surge ahead. The 2013 mass surveillance disclosures made by whistleblower Edward Snowden included a slide [PDF] from a classified NSA presentation that referenced Wikipedia, using its global trademark.
As these disclosures revealed Wikipedia and its users have been targeted specifically, Wikimedia believes it has sufficient evidence to establish standing, and wage a strong case.
It will file its case today and is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.
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