Jimmy Wales is co-founder of Wikipedia and board member of the Wikimedia Foundation, which is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed earlier this month, along with eight other organizations, claiming that the NSA surveillance violates constitutional protections of free speech and privacy. He talks with Bob about the case and the "chilling effect" Wales says the surveillance has on Wikipedia users.
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Bob Garfield: Jimmy Wales is co-founder of Wikipedia and board member of the Wikimedia Foundation, which is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed earlier this month, along with eight other organizations, claiming that the NSA surveillance violates constitutional protections of free speech and privacy. Jimmy, welcome to On the Media.
Jimmy Wales: Thanks for having me.
Bob Garfield: A previous suit against the NSA was dismissed, because the plaintiffs couldn't prove any actual harm. Not theoretical harm, but actual harm to actual individuals. Will you be able to do that?
Jimmy Wales: Uh, yeah we will be able to do that. We'll have specific evidence put forward in the case, which unfortunately I can't talk about right now. But as we go into court, we'll be producing specific examples of the harm.
Bob Garfield: Could you give me a hint? Is it bigger than a breadbox?
Jimmy Wales: Yeah, it's people. Human beings are bigger than bread boxes, and so when we talk about people who are not willing to contribute in the public sphere, because they're afraid of the surveillance that's going on, whether they're in the US or overseas or what-have-you, those are the kind of things that we're looking at, is to say, actually this does make a difference and people are being spied on.
Bob Garfield: I want to go back to the moment you saw the slide from the Snowden revelations that specified Wikipedia as a place for the NSA to snoop around. What went through your mind?
Jimmy Wales: Oh, I was outraged, that they're actually monitoring in a wholesale kind of way the traffic in and out of Wikipedia. It is outrageous and it really pushed us to move forward more quickly than we would have with plans to make all connections Wikipedia encrypted, which is is still a goal we haven't quite hit but that is the direction we're heading. One of the policy assumptions in pursuing this kind of thing is that it's possible to continue doing it. There's a very strong movement online for all communications to become encrypted, and I think that's a great thing. It's probably not what the NSA wanted, and it's probably not what would have happened had they limited themselves to a regime more consistent with our legal traditions of probable cause, get a warrant, get a subpoena, those kinds of things.
Bob Garfield: Now I should say Jimmy that although there was this PowerPoint slide, that came out in the Snowden leak, it was a slide from a presentation suggesting Wikipedia as a target, not documentation that it had been a target. But assuming they followed through, is there any way for you to have divined in these two years, the names or IP addresses of any specific American whose activities were tracked.
Jimmy Wales: Well, as I understand it, it's basically all of them. That this is upstream surveillance where they're collecting huge amounts of data, on just about everyone, and then they attempt to some extent, to sort out who's American and who's not and which parties of the conversation are- but that's gotta be an incredibly inaccurate and virtually impossible task.
Bob Garfield: In fact, the protocols are such, as I understand it, if they do realize they're eavesdropping on an American, they've got to go, oh forget that forget that forget that. And it's presumably not acted on. I suppose that you and your co-plaintiffs believe that that's an impossibility.
Jimmy Wales: Well, yeah, it's definitely an impossibility, and even if they are doing that, I think this raises concerns anyways, because the freedom of expression is intimately tied up with the freedom of association and the idea that the chilling effects of, if I'm in a conversation with someone on Wikipedia and that person is overseas, does that mean that now my conversation is subject to being spied on? It's a super complicated thing to even imagine, how you could sort all that out.
Bob Garfield: There's your lawsuit, based on constitutional principles, and then there's just the very idea of all of this. Your co-plaintiffs in this suit include Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International USA, the Rutherford Institute, the Global Fund for Women, and others. Irrespective of whether the federal courts entertain this litigation and change the behavior of the NSA, is it possible that as a pure matter of public relations, that global outrage could shame let's say the President, into ordering these practices to stop?
Jimmy Wales: I think it is possible. And I think one of the things that for me I find quite tragic about the whole thing is that I travel around the world and I meet with politicians in various places around the world, and I'm as a free speech activist, I'm always pressuring them to say, don't arrest bloggers, and open up your Internet, surveillance on everyone is a bad thing, and now the US has lost a moral force in those arguments. We can hardly complain about the Chinese people spying on everyone, if we're doing the same thing. And I think that is, when we really ask ourselves about our foreign policy goals, the proper foreign policy goals not sort of short-term realpolitik stuff, it should be about spreading the idea of democracy and freedom of speech and expression and human rights, and when we fail to live up to the best practices and standards there, it makes it very very difficult for our politicians to go out with a straight face and lecture the world on these things.
Bob Garfield: Jimmy thank you very much.
Jimmy Wales: Great, thank you.
Bob Garfield: Jimmy Wales is co-founder of Wikipedia and a board member of the Wikimedia Foundation.