Alarmed over recent revelations of sweeping government surveillance of Internet and phone records, a broad coalition of Internet activists, privacy advocates, civil libertarians and others is gearing up for a petitioning blitz that will flood lawmakers with more than 300,000 letters asking for new restraints on federal intelligence-gathering activities.
Stop Watching Us Coalition Is Born
The Stop Watching Us group includes some familiar faces from the Internet freedom movement, such as Reddit and Mozilla, but also counts right-leaning and Tea Party-aligned groups among its more than 70 members.
The coalition was born just last week at the Personal Democracy Forum conference in New York amid growing alarm over revelations about the National Security Agency's surveillance program.
Sina Khanifar, the activist behind the White House petition to legalize unlocking mobile devices, recalls huddling with a small group of conference attendees, including Alex Fowler, Mozilla's head of privacy and public policy, and Josh Levy, Internet campaign director at the media-reform group Free Press, to discuss organizing an opposition campaign protesting the NSA's phone and Internet monitoring.
"We quickly set up a mail list and pinged everyone we knew in the activist community to get involved. [The Electronic Frontier Foundation] wrote up a letter to Congress, and we reached out to orgs to have them sign it and join as supporters of the website," Khanifar explains. "A few all-hands conference calls and all-nighters later, and we launched the site."
Stop Watching Us Coalition Delivers Its Message to Congress
On Thursday, not quite two full days after the site launched, Stop Watching Us passed its target of signing up 100,000 people who submitted their names for a letter to be delivered to their members of Congress asking for checks on government intelligence authorities.
Specifically, the letter asks lawmakers to revise the section of the Patriot Act that gives the government expansive authority to conduct investigations involving "international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities" that have been authorized by secret courts operating under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.
That those courts operate behind closed doors and insulated from public scrutiny has long worried critics of the government's intelligence activities, who would like to see the process of authorizing electronic surveillance held to a higher standard of accountability.
The letter asks lawmakers to reform the FISA Amendments Act "to make clear that blanket surveillance of the Internet activity and phone records of any person residing in the U.S. is prohibited by law and that violations can be reviewed in adversarial proceedings before a public court."
The petitioners are also asking Congress to create a special committee to investigate and report to the public on the extent of the government's surveillance programs, and to produce recommendations for legal and regulatory reforms to square intelligence-gathering activities with the Constitution.
As of this morning, more than 123,000 people had signed onto the Stop Watching Us letter. Those letters will be automatically delivered to the congressmen and two senators representing each signatory, thanks to a script that hooks into the contact forms on lawmakers' websites written by the late Aaron Swartz, a celebrated programmer and advocate for openness and transparency who committed suicide earlier this year as he faced federal charges related to hacking and the prospect of a long prison sentence.
"Many legislators have policies requiring that they respond to every email they receive. As a result, Congress will be forced to read and take action in response to the public's discontent," Khanifar says.
The Stop Watching Us group is currently working on an update to Swartz's script, and expects to begin pushing out the letters by Monday, if not sooner.
Khanifar says that the group has been in communication with congressional staffers about the issue, and anticipates that face-to-face meetings will commence next week.
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.
Read more about privacy in CIO's Privacy Drilldown.