For most Americans, the Fourth of July means barbecue and fireworks. But this year, a coalition of activists rallying to the cry of “Restore the Fourth” is hoping to use the day, both online and offline, to highlight what it calls serious violations of the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution.
The activists are targeting government surveillance programs, in particular PRISM, a project of the National Security Agency (NSA) recently revealed by a former contractor, Edward Snowden, now on the run. It gives the government broad access to Internet traffic and other electronic communications, including records of phone calls made and received by millions of Americans.
“The Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights clearly protects all citizens’ assets, both digital and physical, against searches and seizures without warrant,” the groups say on the website restorethefourth.net, addiing that they aim to assert those rights.
Among their demands, that “the proper channels of government work to ensure that all policy complies with the supreme laws of the United States of America in their entirety.”
Groups ranging from the electronic Frontier Foundation to Reddit and the Internet Defense League are calling for websites to post the full text of the amendment on the holiday. They are urging citizens to call their representatives in Congress, and are providing contact information. And they are also pushing for physical protests, listing more than 100 cities and towns from Birmingham, Ala., to Huntington Beach, Calif., where groups are gathering on Thursday for protest rallies.
Asked to comment on the planned protests, an NSA spokeswoman says via e-mail that “the Fourth of July reminds us as Americans of the freedoms and rights all citizens of our country are guaranteed by our Constitution. Among those is freedom of speech.” Further, she says, “the NSA and its employees work diligently and lawfully every day, around the clock, to protect the nation and its people.”
Protests against the surveillance programs notwithstanding, it is unclear whether the American people fully comprehend the amount of intelligence gathering currently going on, says Mark Tatge, journalism professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.
“It has been happening for more than a decade, a development that was spurred by the 9/11 attacks and changes in law making it easier to lawfully gather information on Americans and their everyday activities,” he says via e-mail, adding that he does not believe the protests will have a meaningful effect.
Beyond that, protests over the NSA programs have been eclipsed by coverage of Mr. Snowden’s travels outside the reach of US authorities, says Paul Levinson, author of “New New Media.”
July 4 protests about NSA data-mining “are much welcome and long overdue,” he says via e-mail. “Cable news, including not only conservative Fox but progressive MSNBC, have cooperated with the administration in focusing mainly or only on the Snowden flight story. Ignored in this coverage is the reason for Snowden's leaks – to call attention to the outrageous violation of privacy and threats to our freedom posed by the NSA data-mining.”
Atlanta-based political strategist David Johnson says last year’s defeat of two pieces of Internet legislation, known as SOPA and PIPA, show the power of social media to create real-world change.
“This kind of action is in its infancy,” says Mr. Johnson, “but it is the beginning of very powerful forces for change because of its ability to mobilize many people quickly.”
Among those readying for Thursday’s actions are activists whose groups have used the power of social media to mobilize. The Huntington Beach rally, for instance, set for 8:30 a.m. Thursday local time, is run by Occupy Orange County.
The real-world component to the strategy is important, says Fordham University’s Heather Gautney, author of “Protest and Organization in the Alternative Globalization Era.”
The protests can have a significant effect on key senators’ motivation to investigate the NSA’s surveillance programs, she points out, adding via e-mail, “and ultimately reform the Patriot Act so that it complies with the US Constitution. Right now, most policymaking on Capitol Hill involves an uphill battle, but Congress people do respond to pressure from their constituents.”
Not everyone in the tech community supports the protests. “It is our government’s job to protect our security,” says Ari Zoldan, CEO of New York-based Quantum Networks. “If that means collecting data in an effort to stop terrorist attacks, I am totally for it.”
Ultimately, the questions raised by the Snowden incident go to the very heart of the Internet and its future use, says Len Shyles, a communications professor at Villanova University in Philadelphia. Any shred of trust about data being secure is now dead, he says – a casualty of both Snowden’s ability to expose the nation’s secrets to its enemies as well as his revelations about the extent of government surveillance of citizens.
“The downside of that is that now the larger possibilities of the Net, which depend on secure messages being shared in a way to be determined by the end users and no one else, is compromised – this fact fundamentally changes the way in which the Net may come to be used,” he adds via e-mail.
This characterization of the diminution of the Net for general use is akin to the way in which arguments for the "Commons" have unfolded in the past, says Professor Shyles.
“It is in everyone's interest to preserve some notion of informational integrity. It builds trust. If all is suspect on the Net, then it dissuades use, and that hurts everyone,” he says.