WASHINGTON (CBS DC) — The nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation that runs Wikipedia’s free online encyclopedia is filing suit against the National Security Agency and the U.S. Department of Justice for large-scale search and seizure of Internet communications.
Wikimedia is among several organizations which filed the lawsuit in federal court in Maryland on Tuesday, arguing that the NSA’s “upstream” collection program violates Americans’ privacy and causes individuals worldwide to be less likely to share sensitive information. Wikimedia is filing the suit along with eight other organizations including Amnesty International USA, Human Rights Watch and litigations is headed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
“We’re filing suit today on behalf of our readers and editors everywhere,” said Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, in a statement. “Surveillance erodes the original promise of the internet: an open space for collaboration and experimentation, and a place free from fear.”
The lawsuit challenges the NSA’s “upstream” program which gathers foreign intelligence information through the capture of communication with “non-U.S. persons,” Reuters reports. Under the authority of the 2008 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act, the Upstream program taps into the internet’s “backbone” to capture a vast amount of information not connected to any specific “target.”
“By tapping the backbone of the internet, the NSA is straining the backbone of democracy,” said Lila Tretikov, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation. “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.”
Additional lawsuits against the mass data collections programs are still pending in U.S. appeals courts.
“Our aim in filing this suit is to end this mass surveillance program in order to protect the rights of our users around the world,” Wikimedia said in a statement. “Privacy is the bedrock of individual freedom.”
The lawsuit also takes aim at the NSA’s Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which Wikimedia says doesn’t resolve “cases” or “controversies,” but instead simply makes advisory opinions that violate Article III of the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit claims that the FISC judicial reviews accomplish little and are open to a loophole that allows continuing NSA practices because of the difficulty for plaintiffs to prove “standing” harm in order to file any lawsuit at all.
In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a similar challenge to NSA surveillance of email and other communications because the plaintiffs were unable to prove they were spied upon or would be in the future. But ACLU attorney Patrick Toomey tells Reuters this was just three months before Edward Snowden released documents proving their right to sue.
“There are no opposing parties and no actual ‘controversy’ at stake. FISC merely reviews the legality of the government’s proposed procedures — the kind of advisory opinion that Article III was intended to restrict,” according to the Wikimedia statement.
Stephen Valdeck, a professor at American University Washington College of Law, tells Reuters that “legal standing” to show individual, particular harm is the “most significant obstacle” for journalists, foreign government officials, victims of human rights abuses and other individuals in their decision to share sensitive information online — for fear of NSA’s wide net of data collection.
According to Wikimedia, users of the free online encyclopedia have written more than 34 million articles in 288 different languages. Every month, these pages are accessed by nearly half a billion people from nearly every country on earth.