Two years after the death of the Stop Online Piracy Act bill in the U.S., privacy advocates around the world are staging another online protest. This time around, it’s not to stop one bill – it’s to protest how the world’s government intelligence agencies are collecting data on their citizens.
Branded as “The Day We Fight Back” campaign, more than 6,000 websites are taking part in the protest, with sites like Demand Progress, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Reddit putting banners at the bottom of the screen to encourage people to participate. Companies like Google, Twitter, and Mozilla are also joining in.
Organizers wanted the day to honour the death of Aaron Swartz, a well-known hacker and privacy activist who committed suicide in January 2013, after federal prosecutors brought him on trial for wire fraud, computer fraud, and unlawfully getting access to files on a protected computer. But they’re also asking U.S. citizens to email and call lawmakers to voice support for the U.S. Freedom Act, which would makes changes to how the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) runs databases for metadata, the data on details like when and where an individual may have made a call or visited a website.
Here in Canada, a number of privacy-based organizations have been active with The Day We Fight Back as well. While the NSA is a U.S. government agency, the Canadian government has a similar agency in Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), an arm of the government responsible for collecting metadata on its citizens – and Canadian privacy advocates need to push back, says David Christopher, communications manager for OpenMedia.ca, based in B.C.
“Six months ago, there wasn’t a huge number of people following this … [But] there is a building sense of momentum and something’s really got to change,” Christopher says, adding there needs to be more oversight over CSEC’s activities, including curbing its spending. Plus, the CSEC commissioner needs to have more power to conduct independent reviews of the agency, he says.
He adds OpenMedia.ca has launched a Canada-specific campaign for online privacy at TheDayWeFightBack.ca, and that it has embedded a tool on the site for Canadians who want to contact their local Members of Parliament to voice their concern about CSEC’s surveillance activities. It’s also hosting an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit for Reddit users with questions about the campaign.
“We really believe in an Internet that’s open, accessible, and surveillance-free,” he says. “We simply can’t go on as we have been with these shocking stories coming out every few weeks about how our privacy rights have been invaded and our democratic rights have been trampled on.”
And in the next couple of months, privacy advocates will be keeping an eye on developing court cases, like the lawsuit filed by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association against CSEC in October 2013, says Tamir Israel, a lawyer for the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC). The lawsuit claims that CSEC’s surveillance of Canadians is “broad and unchecked” as well unconstitutional.
“I think that many of the problems that are associated with the NSA are probably equally problematic here as well. We just don’t know about them as much because many of the Snowden documents were really focused on the NSA activities themselves,” Israel says, referring to the revelations leaked by Edward Snowden, a former contractor wih the NSA. He adds that CSEC has helped support the NSA’s metadata database.
“The fact that we’ve mostly heard about NSA activities – I wouldn’t find that reassuring as a Canadian, personally … I hope that Canadians today, and in the coming weeks, learn more about this and start to share my concerns.”
They will also be watching for Bill C-13, which the federal government introduced to try to crack down on cyberbullying. However, this law is much more focused on online spying, making privacy advocates very concerned, says Christopher. It is currently up for its second reading in the House of Commons.
Canadians can also join the Protect our Privacy coalition, a group made up of over 30 Canadian organizations lobbying for privacy rights, including OpenMedia.ca and CIPPIC, or sign an international petition asking individuals to support “The Principles Against Mass Surveillance.” At the time of this writing, the petition has garnered more than 138,000 signatures.