NSA Internet Surveillance Program Challenged by Operator of Wikipedia

The Telecommunications Law Resource Center is the most comprehensive reference and news platform for communications law, covering broadcasting, cable, broadband, telephony and wireless;...

By Alexei Alexis

March 10 — The operator of the popular Wikipedia website and other organizations are challenging the legality of a controversial Internet surveillance program at the National Security Agency.

The suit, filed March 10 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, alleges that the NSA is engaging in the “suspicionless seizure” and searching of Internet traffic, intercepting Americans' communications en masse, in violation of the Constitution and the FISA Amendments Act (Wikimedia Foundation v. NSA, D. Md., No. 1:15-cv-00662-RDB, complaint, 3/10/15).

“By violating our users’ privacy, the NSA is threatening the intellectual freedom that is a central to people’s ability to create and understand knowledge,” Lila Tretikov, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, which operates Wikipedia, said in a statement.

The NSA copies and combs through vast amounts of Internet traffic, which it intercepts inside the U.S. with the help of major telecommunications companies, according to the suit, which was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Wikimedia and other plaintiffs, including the Rutherford Institute, Amnesty International USA, Human Rights Watch, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Top Tech Industry Priority

The program at issue is among controversial surveillance initiatives that were exposed in 2013 by former government contractor Edward Snowden. The matter remains a top concern for the technology industry, according to Bijan Madhani, public policy and regulatory counsel for the Computer and Communications Industry Association, which represents some of the nation's leading Internet companies, such as Facebook Inc., Google Inc., and Microsoft Corp.

“The broad programmatic authorities employed by the intelligence community to collect, store and search nearly all communications that traverse Internet backbones have dramatically reduced global public confidence in the increasingly important digital economy and related services,” Madhani said in an e-mailed statement.

In a related case, Twitter Inc. is challenging U.S. government restrictions on the company's ability to publish information on surveillance orders. In another legal action, Microsoft is challenging a government search warrant ordering the company to produce an unidentified customer's e-mails stored in a data center in Ireland.

According to the ACLU suit, the NSA's Internet surveillance program involves the warrantless review of the e-mails and Internet activities of millions of ordinary Americans. The suit argues that the NSA is violating the plaintiffs’ privacy rights under the Fourth Amendment and infringing on their First Amendment rights. It also claims that the NSA program exceeds the authority granted by Congress under the FISA Amendments Act.

Hill Reaction

The suit was hailed by Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.), ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), ranking member of the panel's Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations.

“We have long been troubled that these programs appear to sidestep the requirements of the Fourth Amendment,” the lawmakers said in a statement. “There is no question that, under Section 702 of FISA, the government can and does obtain massive amounts of information about Americans without a warrant or individualized suspicion of wrongdoing. While we appreciate that these programs provide us with valuable signals intelligence, any surveillance program must first comply with the Constitution and the underlying law.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the NSA program poses “major problems” for Americans’ privacy rights.

“This program scoops up records based not just on who you are talking to, but who you are talking about,” the senator said in an e-mailed statement. “Despite the fact the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ruled four years ago that the NSA was circumventing the spirit of the law and collecting tens of thousands of Americans’ domestic communications without warrants, these practices still have not been reformed.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Alexei Alexis in Washington at aalexis @bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

The ACLU complaint can be found at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/Wikimedia_Foundation_et_al_v_National_Security_AgencyCentral_Secu.