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11 February 2014updated 12 Oct 2023 10:20am

Websites around the world take part in ‘The Day We Fight Back’ protest against mass surveillance

Banners on websites like reddit, Upworthy and tumblr are a response to the US government's appropriation of the internet as a tool for spying on citizens.

By Ian Steadman

Users of many of the web’s largest sites – like reddit and Upworthy – will have been badgered to sign a petition against the NSA’s mass surveillance of the internet today. That’s because 11 February has been deemed “The Day We Fight Back“, a multinational protest (which nevertheless is skewed extremely US-centric) for the right to privacy online.

It’s organised around what it calls “the 13 principles”, which “establish the human rights obligations of any government conducting surveillance”. For American web users, there’s an added call to contact their elected representatives to express their support for the USA Freedom Act, which seeks to limit the power of the government’s dragnet surveillance tactics.

Here’s the campaign’s blurb:

For some time now there has been a need to update understandings of existing human rights law to reflect modern surveillance technologies and techniques. Nothing could demonstrate the urgency of this situation more than the recent revelations confirming the mass surveillance of innocent individuals around the world.

To move toward that goal, we’re pleased to announce the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance. The principles articulate what international human rights law – which binds every country across the globe – require of governments in the digital age. They speak to a growing global consensus that modern surveillance has gone too far and needs to be restrained. They also give benchmarks that people around the world can use to evaluate and push for changes in their own legal systems.

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This is perhaps the largest coordinated online protest since the anti-SOPA and PIPA “blackouts” of 2012, which saw major websites like Wikipedia and reddit effectively shutting down for 24 hours in response to the ridiculous way those two anti-piracy bills would break the way the internet works. That protest worked because it was impossible to miss, and raised awareness of the issue on a massive scale. 

Today’s protest isn’t anything like as big in scale (Wikipedia’s not taking part, for one), and its tactic of sticking a banner at the bottom of pages doesn’t force people to look at what they’re being told. Some of the participants, like Imgur, haven’t even bothered with the banner. Yet the response has been pretty good – as of writing, there have been more than 130,000 signatures on its petition, which is certainly something. Hopefully, quite a few of those have also contacted their representatives.

European – including British – web users wanting to get involved can also contact their representatives in government, via the Don’t Spy On Us group. Its key demand is that surveillance become subject to parliamentary oversight, and become more limited, while GCHQ must also be more transparent about how much data it gathers and why. This makes Ed Miliband’s Hugo Young Lecture yesterday, where he mentioned the need for a dramatic, US-style debate about reforming the security services, timely.

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