Wikipedia Challenges NSA's Online Monitoring Program

The National Security Agency's well-publicized online monitoring program is harming the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, the site's parent organization alleges in a lawsuit filed today.

The surveillance of online communications “compromises Wikimedia’s organizational mission by making online access to knowledge a vehicle for U.S. government monitoring,” the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation charges.

“We’re filing suit today on behalf of our readers and editors everywhere,” Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said today in a statement. “Surveillance erodes the original promise of the internet: an open space for collaboration and experimentation, and a place free from fear.”

The organization adds that it needs to “ensure anonymity” for people abroad who read or edit the online encyclopedia.

“The ability to read, research, and write anonymously is essential to the freedoms of expression and inquiry,” the nonprofit says in a complaint filed today in U.S. District Court in Maryland. “In addition, Wikimedia’s staff depend on the confidentiality of their communications, including in some cases their ability to ensure that their contacts’ identities will not be revealed.”

The lawsuit, which was joined by eight other groups -- the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the PEN American Center, Global Fund for Women, The Nation, the Rutherford Institute and the Washington Office on Latin America -- marks the latest fallout from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's revelations about widespread monitoring by the government.

The organizations are specifically challenging a 2008 amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act', which allow the government to intercept communications with “non-U.S. persons,” providing those communications could be construed as foreign intelligence information.

“The program casts a vast net, and as a result, captures communications that are not connected to any 'target,' or may be entirely domestic. This includes communications by our users and staff,” Wikimedia says in a blog post.

The online encyclopedia is asking the court to declare that the surveillance program is illegal and enjoin the NSA from continuing with the initiative.

Amnesty International previously challenged the program, but the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the organization's lawsuit in early 2013 -- before Snowden revealed the full extent of the NSA's monitoring -- because the nonprofit couldn't show it was injured by the surveillance and, therefore, lacked “standing” to proceed.

In hopes that its lawsuit won't suffer the same fate, Wikimedia alleges that it has been harmed by the program.

“Due in part to NSA surveillance ... Wikimedia has undertaken burdensome and costly measures to protect its communications, including adopting more secure methods of electronic communication, and in some instances avoiding sensitive topics or forgoing communications altogether,” the lawsuit alleges.

The foundation adds that those measures haven't necessary reassured all of its foreign users. “Despite these precautions, Wikimedia believes that ... surveillance has resulted and will result in some foreign readers, editors, contributors, and volunteers being less willing to read, contribute to, or otherwise engage with Wikimedia’s Projects,” the nonprofit alleges.

“The loss of these foreign users is a direct detriment to Wikimedia.... It also harms Wikimedia’s domestic users, who do not have access to information and opinions that Wikipedia’s foreign contributors would otherwise have provided.”

Whether this challenge will get any further in court than Amnesty International's remains to be seen.

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