Wikimedia Is Suing the NSA and DOJ Over Their Mass Surveillance Operations

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales at the international Wikimedia conference in 2012.

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Wikimedia, the nonprofit that hosts the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against the National Security Agency and the Department of Justice. The goal is to challenge the agencies’ large-scale surveillance programs and their extensive interception of communications (an approach that is often called “upstream” surveillance).

Wikimedia joins eight other groups, including Amnesty International USA and Human Rights Watch, in the suit. They are being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. A Wikimedia statement explains, “Our aim in filing this suit is to end this mass surveillance program in order to protect the rights of our users around the world.”

The lawsuit alleges that NSA surveillance violates the First Amendment by inhibiting free speech and the Fourth Amendment by facilitating unlawful search and seizure. In other similar initiatives, including an Amnesty International challenge of FAA cooperation with the NSA in 2013, things haven’t gotten very far. In that case, for example, the Supreme Court said that Amnesty couldn’t show it had been harmed, and therefore didn’t have standing. But this time Wikimedia says, “we believe we have more than sufficient evidence to establish standing,” partly because of a slide in an NSA presentation that refers to Wikipedia by name.

Lila Tretikov, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, said in the statement, “Wikipedia is founded on the freedoms of expression, inquiry, and information. By violating our users’ privacy, the NSA is threatening the intellectual freedom that is central to people’s ability to create and understand knowledge.”

In a New York Times piece, also published on Tuesday, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales and Tretikov outline the goal of the lawsuit: “The harm to Wikimedia and the hundreds of millions of people who visit our websites is clear: Pervasive surveillance has a chilling effect. It stifles freedom of expression and the free exchange of knowledge that Wikimedia was designed to enable.”