Wikipedia filed a lawsuit on Tuesday challenging the constitutionality of the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance of Internet communications, a sudden and striking challenge that comes nearly two years after Edward Snowden’s disclosures first began.
The online encyclopedia’s suit against the NSA and the Justice Department claims that the U.S. government’s mass surveillance regime threatens freedom of speech under the First Amendment and the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizures.
“By tapping the backbone of the Internet, the NSA is straining the backbone of democracy,” Lila Tretikov, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, wrote in a blog post on its website. “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.”
Wikipedia is not new to digital-freedom activism, though it seldom takes on such controversial issues so directly. A few years ago, it joined with other websites across the Internet to successfully protest the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, by engaging in a “blackout” that saw its website go down for a day.
In a strongly worded op-ed also published Tuesday in The New York Times, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Tretikov argued that “pervasive surveillance” on its hundreds of millions of visitors has a chilling effect that “stifles freedom of expression and the free exchange of knowledge.”
“Whenever someone overseas views or edits a Wikipedia page, it’s likely that the N.S.A. is tracking that activity—including the content of what was read or typed, as well as other information that can be linked to the person’s physical location and possible identity,” Wales and Tretikov wrote. “These activities are sensitive and private: They can reveal everything from a person’s political and religious beliefs to sexual orientation and medical conditions.”
The lawsuit, according to Wikipedia’s blog and op-ed, argues that the NSA’s collection of Internet communications through a program known as Upstream, which allows the NSA to surveil Internet communications by directly tapping into fiber cables, can often open U.S. data to warrantless access.
Wikipedia’s lawsuit specifically claims that the NSA’s use of Upstream exceeds the authority given to it under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which Congress amended in 2008.
The NSA is in the throes of battling litigation challenging its surveillance programs. Three cases currently at the Appeals Court level challenge the agency’s bulk collection of U.S. call metadata—the first program exposed by Snowden—and any split in those cases could ultimately portend a Supreme Court review.
Eight other organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, are joining Wikipedia’s challenge, which is being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.