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Q&A: Why is the Wikimedia Foundation suing the NSA?

Michelle Paulson,
Senior Legal Counsel,
Wikimedia Foundation
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March 10, 2015

This post was originally published on Wikimedia’s blog.

Today the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit organization that supports Wikipedia and its sister projects, is filing suit against the National Security Agency and the Department of Justice of the United States with representation from the American Civil Liberties Union. The lawsuit is a challenge to dragnet surveillance by the NSA, specifically its large-scale copying and searching of internet communications – frequently referred to as “upstream” surveillance.

Wikipedia is one of the world’s largest collaborative free knowledge resources and is read by nearly 500 million people every month. The Wikimedia Foundation’s aim in filing this suit is to end the upstream mass surveillance program in order to protect the rights of Wikimedia users around the world. This post explains why the foundation is concerned about the NSA surveillance of its users and the reasoning behind this lawsuit.

Read more about Wikimedia v. NSA »

Q: What does this lawsuit challenge?
A: Our lawsuit challenges the NSA’s unfounded, large-scale search and seizure of Internet communications, frequently referred to as “upstream” surveillance. Using upstream surveillance, the NSA intercepts virtually all international internet communications flowing across the network of high-capacity cables, switches, and routers that make up the internet’s “backbone” inside the United States. This backbone connects the Wikimedia global community of readers and contributors to Wikipedia and the other the Wikimedia projects.

Q: What is the U.S. government’s legal justification for this program?
A: The U.S. government has used the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments Act of 2008 (FAA) (see 50 U.S.C. § 1881a) to justify broad, “upstream” mass surveillance inside the United States. Under the FAA, “the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence may authorize jointly, for a period of up to one year from the effective date of the authorization, the targeting of [non-US] persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States to acquire foreign intelligence information.” The statute only requires “reasonable belief” that a non-US person is located outside the United States. There is no need to show that the target is a foreign agent, much less a terrorist. The purpose of the statute is to acquire “foreign intelligence information”– a very general concept. We believe the broad interpretation of this statute, which allows for upstream surveillance, is unconstitutional.

Q: How does surveillance or the fear of surveillance affect readers and editors of Wikipedia and its sister projects?
A: Mass surveillance is a threat to intellectual freedom and a spirit of inquiry, two of the driving forces behind Wikimedia. Wikipedia is written by people from around the world who often tackle difficult subjects. Very frequently they choose to remain anonymous or pseudonymous. This allows them to freely create, contribute, and discover, without fear of reprisal. Surveillance might be used to reveal sensitive information, create a chilling effect to deter participation or, in extreme instances, identify individual users. Pervasive surveillance undermines the freedoms upon which Wikipedia and its communities are founded.

Q: How does surveillance affect Wikipedia as a knowledge resource?
A: Wikipedia is a living resource for knowledge, written by volunteers around the globe in hundreds of languages. It reflects the world around us and changes to embody current events, notable individuals, evolving theories, emerging art, and more. Wikipedia relies on the contributions of editors and the support of readers to evolve and grow. If readers and editors are deterred from participating in Wikipedia because of concerns about surveillance, the health of Wikipedia as a resource to the world is jeopardized.

Q: What kind of Wikimedia communications could the NSA be intercepting?
A: Wikipedia and its sister projects are created entirely by volunteer editors. More than 75,000 editors each month edit Wikipedia, amounting to more than 33 million articles. These editors not only contribute content, but they also discuss and share information on discussion pages and elsewhere within the project. Privacy and free expression are core values of the Wikimedia community. When volunteer editors contribute to Wikipedia, they expect it to be a safe, open space in which creativity and knowledge can thrive.

Q: Why is it important that the Wikimedia Foundation ensures privacy and anonymity for its users?
A: Privacy is a core value of the Wikimedia movement. From the beginning, Wikipedia has allowed for users to maintain private identities through the use of anonymous or pseudonymous editing. This has been reinforced by the Wikimedia Foundation’s firm commitment to protecting the privacy and data of its users through legal and technical means.

Privacy makes freedom of expression possible, sustains freedom of inquiry, and allows for freedom of information and association. Knowledge flourishes where privacy is protected.

Q: Why is the NSA interested in the communications of innocent Wikimedia users?
A: You would have to ask them. One could guess, however, that they are trying to amass as much information as possible into their databases, and, as with other websites, they may believe there is value in the data, conversations, and personal information on Wikipedia and in the Wikimedia community.

Q: How do you know Wikimedia has been singled out for surveillance by the NSA?
A: One of the NSA documents revealed by whistle-blower Edward Snowden specifically identifies Wikipedia for surveillance alongside several other major websites like, Gmail, and Facebook. The previously secret slide declares that monitoring these sites can allow NSA analysts to learn “nearly everything a typical user does on the Internet.”

Q: Has the Wikimedia Foundation taken any measures to protect its users’ privacy?
A: The Wikimedia Foundation takes privacy very seriously, which is why we find the NSA’s upstream mass surveillance so troubling. You do not need to create an account or login to read or edit Wikipedia or the other Wikimedia sites. If you do decide to create an account, you can choose any username you like — we don’t require real names, email addresses, or any other personally identifying information, and we never sell your data.

Q: Why did Wikimedia join this lawsuit against the NSA?
A: Our role at the Wikimedia Foundation is to protect Wikipedia, its sister projects, and the Wikimedia community of users. This means providing our users with the right conditions to facilitate their work and protecting them when necessary. Defending the privacy of our editors, readers, and community is paramount to us. We believe privacy is essential to facilitating and advancing free knowledge.

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