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Mass. Internet activists plan protest of NSA

Plan rallies for 4th; opposed to secret surveillance in US

Massachusetts Web activists are helping to organize protests against the National Security Agency surveillance program at some of the Internet’s most popular websites and on the ground in cities across the country on the Fourth of July.

The nonprofit known as Fight for the Future was instrumental in rallying tech companies and social media sites in protests last year that helped defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act, a congressional bill that would have given the government new powers to regulate the Internet.

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Thursday’s online protests are meant to rally support against NSA surveillance activities that have been revealed in leaked government documents. It is Fight for the Future’s largest online mobilization effort since its actions against the piracy bill.

“We are creating a moment when the American public can do something about the NSA,” said Tiffiniy Cheng, cofounder of the group that formed in 2011 in Worcester. “We are seeing unreasonable search and seizure, we are seeing investigation without probable cause.”

The coordinated online effort is expected to include thousands of websites, tech companies, and advocacy organizations, including reddit, WordPress, and Mozilla. Rallies are expected in Boston, Washington, D.C., New York, and other US cities.

The websites will display prominent messages on their home pages denouncing the NSA and calling for action against its sweeping use of digital surveillance. According to secret documents leaked by former government contractor Edward Snowden, the NSA has developed sophisticated tools for gathering data on phone calls, e-mails, and social media posts of US citizens.

“We are asking the NSA to delete our data and never do this again,” said Cheng, who lives in Northampton.

Revelations of the NSA surveillance program have caused a firestorm of criticism on the Web aimed at the Obama administration and government officials. More than 500,000 people have signed an online petition demanding that Congress investigate the NSA.

A group called Restore the Fourth — a reference to the constitutional amendment, not the holiday — is attempting to turn much of that criticism on the Web into protests on the street. In Boston, supporters plan to rally at the Old State House on Thursday at 9:30 a.m.

Some websites on Thursday will post the text of the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure, in hope that it will spread virally on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

“In Massachusetts, we have a deep and heady relationship with the Fourth Amendment,” said Kade Crockford, director of the technology for liberty project at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. The origins of the amendment are in Colonial Massachusetts’ legislation against British search and seizure.

Protesters are also seizing on the symbolism of the Fourth of July.

“It’s an invitation to think about what the day actually means,” said Crockford, who is organizing a rally against the NSA for Dewey Square at 1 p.m. on Thursday. She is holding the protest independently of her ACLU role.

It remains to be seen whether Thursday’s protests — online or off — have as much impact as the movement against the Stop Online Piracy Act. At that time, some of the Web’s biggest sites such as Wikipedia blacked out Web pages and major corporations such as Google Inc. participated in a dramatic day of protest that prompted Congress to back down from the legislation.

Cheng said Fight for the Future expects to stage more protests in the coming weeks.

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com.
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