So much for 'fighting back' against NSA surveillance. You can blame Silicon Valley for that
Tens of millions protested the Iraq invasion across dozens of countries in 2003, and we still went to war. An online protest saw 75,000 websites blacked out for a day in 2012, which led to the shelving of censorship laws. You can blame corporate America's apathy for this next one.
Two years ago, when two painfully destructive proposed laws dubbed the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) were flowing through Congress, the online world erupted in a "day of rage" not too dissimilar from some of the real-world gatherings of thousands protesting their own oppressive governments.
SOPA and PIPA, or the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect-IP Act, respectively, would have enabled copyright and intellectual property holders to legitimately — as well as fraudulently — shut down websites that allegedly infringe copyright. They were not Bills to protect content or work. They were censorship Bills.
It was the largest and most profound online protest ever conducted, and it actually worked.
Following a day where hundreds of high-profile websites, from Reddit to Google, Wikipedia, and WordPress, shut down, went offline, or were heavily redacted for the half or full day in mid January 2012, simulating what the laws in practice could action, both Bills were shelved.
More than 75,000 websites were blacked out during the protest, with 160 million people seeing Wikipedia's redacted pages alone. Following Google's efforts in blacking out its logo, 4.5 million signed the search giant's petition. An estimated 2-4 million anti-SOPA and PIPA messages were tweeted.
On Tuesday, a similar online and real-world protest, dubbed "The Day We Fight Back," had promise to show the Washington D.C.-based bureaucrats how they felt about the massive U.S. government surveillance machine disclosed by former National Security Agency (NSA) worker Edward Snowden.
The end goals were not clear. Was it to protest the massive domestic or foreign surveillance conducted by the U.S. and its four global nation-state partners? Was it to repeal laws that allowed the spying to go ahead? Or was it for legislative reform, or even an opportunity to call a Congress person and complain for the sake of it?
Tuesday's events were, like similar worldwide gatherings last July 4 for the appropriately named "Restore the Fourth" marches, in protest of the alleged violations of American's Fourth Amendment rights that protect against unwarranted searches and seizures, a failure.
"As the protests against SOPA demonstrated, Wikipedia — with its enormous user base and traffic — can disseminate the information that is essential to a functioning democracy."
At the time of writing, over 87,000 calls were placed, and more than 181,000 emails were sent to legislators, according to the organizers' website.
Some major websites, such as Reddit and WordPress — as they did before, with the SOPA and PIPA protests — flashed an embedded protest banner to their pages. Privacy groups, not least the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and Greenpeace, joined together in a call to arms to object to vast and indiscriminate mass surveillance.
But Wikipedia didn't — a point that the organizers of the day noted beforehand. And neither did Flickr, which Yahoo owns. And Google didn't do anything, either.
In fact, not one of the major technology companies implicated in the first round of Snowden leaks — Microsoft and Skype, Yahoo, Google and YouTube, Facebook, AOL, Apple, and video chat room community PalTalk — did anything to show any sign of support for the cause that gave them great public-facing and shareholder-level harm.
According to The New York Times, the coalition of companies — with the addition of LinkedIn (which was slated to be PRISM's next target) and Twitter — did flash the anti-NSA protest banner on a website they published earlier this year to reform global government surveillance. It was a small gesture of solidarity, in conjunction with a few public blog posts that on the most part would have only reached the assignment desks of most tech media organizations.
But other than that, the companies kept their heads down and out of the fray.
These companies, with an estimated combined user base of more than two thirds of the world's population, had an opportunity to join forces and rally behind something they have already been vocal about — particularly in regards to their denials of any knowing complicity with these massive and clearly overreaching government surveillance programs, and fighting for the legal disclosure of how many data requests they have received over a set period.
While the SOPA and PIPA protests were a call to action before it was too late, global government surveillance was reactionary after the fact.
PIPA would have forced U.S. web providers to block access to "copyright infringing" websites and seek legal action against other sites that link to such content. But SOPA was far broader, striking at the heart of the Internet itself by blocking swathes of domain names and IP addresses at the Internet provider level.
The two Bills would have incurred liability on the companies providing a service, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Small businesses could have been hit with bogus or difficult-to-prove copyright claims, and be shut down within days.
These efforts, as a result of Hollywood's self-preservation tactics to keep its profits afloat in an age where piracy continues to siphon their earnings, would have had a devastating effect on the technology industry.
But NSA surveillance? Frankly, it has almost no effect on the companies themselves — even if they are the ones the government (and other nation states) secretly contacts in order to get your information.
Silicon Valley giants and major telecoms firms were already operating under the legal regime from which they were first founded. Laws already existed to enable programs, such as PRISM and datacenter fiber optic cable tapping, to function. The laws may have been a part of the public legislative library, which were enough for the companies to refer to if anybody asked — even if they were shielded from the data-grabbing programs the NSA and other intelligence agencies operated.
Simply put: While SOPA and PIPA affected the companies, government surveillance affects only the people.
It's little wonder why Silicon Valley barely said a word during or before Tuesday's "day of rage."
"While SOPA and PIPA affected the companies, government surveillance affects only the people."
Had the aforementioned nine technology companies taken the moral approach and joined forces with the privacy groups and the spattering of other major websites and firms on Tuesday, the pressure on the U.S. and its Five Eyes partners — including Canada, the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand — would have been huge.
Instead, Silicon Valley is taking the legislative approach and challenging what it sees as its transparency-hindering efforts in court. Because that is what matters to the companies: Trying to restore faith in their customer base after they were tarred with the same brush as the government.
Sadly, it's not always how many people protest. It's often, as the case appears to be, about the corporate backing that worries governments and legislators enough to back down.
But when two censorship laws affected the profits of major U.S. technology companies, then roll out the red carpets, because they're coming to town with placards over their shoulders.
Millions can take to the streets and yet they can be widely ignored. Yet, it's far more likely for a handful of companies putting their names behind a cause to spur on change. It is they who have the customers and the user base, and the combined power to reach out to those tens if not hundreds of millions of people and lay out their objections.
As already mentioned, a simple-looking link on Google's homepage in January 2012 resulted in 4.5 million people signing the company's petition against the censorship-law legislation.
It's not necessarily that people don't care about government surveillance. It's not likely that people don't know about it. It's been in the news for months. The vast majority of the Western (and directly affected) population will know at least of the scandal, even if a far smaller slice will care enough to seek out the intricacies and details.
It's more likely that the fact that the companies, despite their obligation to their shareholders as well as their customers, barely said a word about what many, including politicians and federal judges, are calling "unconstitutional" surveillance.
Arguably — at least in some minds — not doing something could infer complicity. Not disclosing a crime in some countries can be a crime in itself.
And the funny thing is? That's exactly the reason why we have whistleblowers.