Leadership

Citing User Privacy Concerns, Wikimedia Foundation Sues NSA

By / Mar 10, 2015 Wikimedia Foundation co-founder Jimmy Wales. (Nadine Rupp/Getty Images)

The nonprofit that runs Wikipedia—everyone’s go-to source for quick information on almost anything—is taking a lead role in a new lawsuit challenging the National Security Agency’s wide-ranging internet surveillance program.

The National Security Agency’s controversial surveillance program is facing a fresh attack from the nonprofit that runs one of the internet’s most popular websites.

On Tuesday, the Wikimedia Foundation filed a lawsuit [PDF] challenging “the suspicionless seizure and searching of internet traffic” by the NSA, saying the agency’s surveillance program violates the constitutional rights of “the hundreds of millions of individuals who visit Wikipedia webpages to read or contribute to the vast repository of human knowledge that Wikimedia maintains online.”

“We’re filing suit today on behalf of our readers and editors everywhere,” Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said in a news release. “Surveillance erodes the original promise of the internet: an open space for collaboration and experimentation, and a place free from fear.”

Several other advocacy groups and professional organizations joined the lawsuit, including the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International. The Nation, an iconic progressive magazine, is another plaintiff in the suit.

“As president of the nation’s criminal defense bar, I am particularly concerned with how such surveillance programs violate attorney-client privilege,” NACDL President Theodore Simon said in a news release. “The privacy of attorneys’ communications with their clients is necessary to our notion of a fair justice system.”

Enough for Standing?

Wikimedia may succeed where other lawsuits have failed. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a similar case brought by Amnesty International, holding that the human-rights organization didn’t have standing to bring the suit because it hadn’t suffered specific harm from the surveillance program.

Because Wikipedia serves more content and has more users than nearly all of the internet’s other websites, the foundation potentially has a stronger case. And Wikipedia was specifically mentioned in a leaked NSA slide [PDF] discussing surveillance technology. “Because these disclosures revealed that the government specifically targeted Wikipedia and its users, we believe we have more than sufficient evidence to establish standing,” Wikimedia said in a company blog post.

In a New York Times op-ed, Wales and Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Lila Tretikov noted that many of Wikipedia’s content contributors take significant risks when they add information to the site.

“On our servers, run by the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, those volunteers discuss their work on everything from Tiananmen Square to gay rights in Uganda,” Wales and Tretikov wrote. “Many of them prefer to work anonymously, especially those who work on controversial issues or who live in countries with repressive governments.

“These volunteers should be able to do their work without having to worry that the United States government is monitoring what they read and write.”

Wikipedia’s Political Roots

The lawsuit highlights the ideological underpinnings of Wikipedia, which have largely been forgotten by the public but could provide some additional context for why they chose to speak up in this specific case. When Wales and others launched the website in 2000, they based the website’s free-content philosophy on the work of the Austrian libertarian economist F.A. Hayek, who encouraged a distributed economics approach.

“Hayek’s work on price theory is central to my own thinking about how to manage the Wikipedia project,” Wales once wrote, according to the magazine Reason. “One can’t understand my ideas about Wikipedia without understanding Hayek.”

As of late Tuesday afternoon, neither NSA or the Department of Justice, also a named defendant, had commented on the lawsuit.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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