On the anniversary of Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations, tech companies and civil liberties groups such as Mozilla, Google, Reddit and Greenpeace, rallied Thursday for “Reset The Net” to protest mass government surveillance through encryption. But these kinds of anti-NSA protests have a history of falling flat in spite of growing public fury in the wake of the Snowden leaks, raising questions of whether it’ll even make a difference.
Thursday’s protest, which aims to encourages people to use encrypted websites and install easy-to-use tools that secure emails and mobile apps, comes shortly after the U.S. House of Representatives passed a watered down version of the USA Freedom Act. While the bill scraps the current NSA surveillance program, it still gives the agency leeway to indiscriminately collect mass amounts of personal data.
Online anti-surveillance protests have cropped up more after the NSA leaks, but have largely been criticized as flops. They haven’t gotten nearly as much attention as the anti-censorship Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act (SOPA/PIPA) protests in 2012, when the Internet “went dark” to raise awareness of the bills. And its success — thousands of sites shutting down in solidarity that led to Congress killing the controversial bills — remains unmatched, setting a high benchmark for other Internet-based protests.
For example, February’s anti-surveillance rally “The Day We Fight Back” didn’t gain nearly as much traction. The rally became known more as a revolution that didn’t happen.
So why, even with the same backers and organizers, haven’t anti-surveillance protests been able to hit the same mark as SOPA?
“One difference with [Reset The Net] opposed to other protests is it doesn’t focus on legislation,” Mark Stanley, campaign and communications strategist for the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C., told ThinkProgress.
“We’re pushing for something, not against something,” Matt Simons of ThoughtWorks, a software company, told The Verge about The Day We Fight Back protest. “I think often it’s a lot easier to rally support against a bad bill than it is to build acceptance around a better one.”
Despite public outcry demanding the end of the NSA’s dragnet phone metadata program and a growing interest in online privacy, these protests don’t seem to resonate, and few people are galvanized to take action beyond Twitter outrage.
Another barrier is that “for the average computer user, it’s hard to know how to protect yourself from the NSA or [hackers],” Alex Abdo, a speech, technology and privacy attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in New York told ThinkProgress.
Consumer inertia was especially obvious after the Heartbleed bug was discovered earlier this year. The devastating security hole in the encryption code used by almost 70 percent of the World’s websites barely resonated as a serious threat to the public. The flaw exposed millions of credit card numbers, banking information, usernames and passwords and online activity, but few people reacted. Over 60 percent didn’t change their passwords, according to a Pew Internet report. Even after news broke the NSA exploited the Web flaw in the two years it went undetected, only 29 percent believed their personal information was at risk.
“As data breaches continue to be an issue, as people’s lives become more digital they will have to become more diligent to protect themselves,” Stanley said. Some people have started taking Snowden’s advice and shielding their online movements — encryption rose 60 percent in the last year. But overall use is still low, less than 5 percent of all peak traffic in the United States and only 14 percent of users saying they encrypt their communications.
But beyond technical adeptness, the biggest issue with anti-surveillance protests is that there’s no end in sight. “What I think the world is now recognizing is that the problem with mass surveillance is that is won’t be solved overnight, or one legislation, or one piece of software. It’s going to take a concerted effort to keep the Internet private and free,” Abdo said.
“It’s hard to put all of your faith in the political process given the complexity of the issue,” Abdo said. “But there are steps people outside of government can take, without waiting on Congress.”
Ultimately it’s about pushing for stronger policies and legislation, Stanley said, but that’s only part of the solution.
“We have a brief glimpse behind the NSA’s curtains with the Snowden leaks; in five years there will be different programs and the challenge will be maintaining the balance between privacy and surveillance. Reset The Net starts that process, “but the work will not be done for a while.”