Why Tech Activists Are Rallying Today


Thousands of online retailers and social media sites such as Tumblr and Reddit banded together Tuesday to protest online government surveillance. But instead of rallying on the U.S. Capitol’s steps, organizations around the world are using Facebook, Google Plus, Meetup, blogs and home sites to speak out against the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance program.

To honor former open Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide last year, Febuary 11 was dedicated as “The Day We Fight Back” by an expansive coalition of Internet and tech advocates. Thousands of companies and organizations will take to social media to share memes or sport a banner urging users to call on their congressman to denounce mass surveillance. Like the Swartz-led Internet blackout in 2012 — when thousands of websites, including Wikipedia and Google, went dark to protest online censorship and the Stop Online Piracy Act — The Day We Fight Back marks a new wave of tech political activism.

The 2012 blackout successfully pressured Congress to kill SOPA and its Senate counterpart, the Protect IP Act. Tech activists hope Tuesday’s protest will push Congress to pass the USA Freedom Act, which would limit intelligence agencies’ ability to mine citizens’ data in bulk, and kill the FISA Improvement Act, which critics say would only further entrench NSA surveillance. And while there hasn’t been any indication that websites will “go dark” for this protest, the sheer volume of users that will stumble on a participating site or designated Facebook event could have widespread effect.

The protest’s emphasis on getting participants to contact their members of Congress is also a tribute to Swartz. Swartz championed a brand of aggressive form of Internet protest that works within the system, calling on people to inundate Congress with calls and emails, as opposed to hacking government sites to make a statement. For example, Swartz co-founded Demand Progress, one of the first activist groups to explicitly focus on organizing online communities around tech policy issues. He also launched the Progressive Change Campaign Committee to help elect politicians who would push for progressive policies. This organizing style posed a stark contrast to the methods used by groups like Anonymous, the decentralized collective of hackers linked to multiple government website breaches, which briefly takes over websites and alters them to raise public awareness of political issues. Anonymous is also participating in Tuesday’s organized protest.

Like the 2012 SOPA blackout, Tuesday’s anti-surveillance protest capitalizes on how heavily intertwined daily lives are with the Internet. And while Swartz didn’t live to see the extent of government programs’ intrusion into online privacy as revealed by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, his style of protest has taken tech activism mainstream. Tech companies and hackers alike now funneling their efforts into the traditional political process.