The Stop Watching Us campaign will test its ability to mobilize opposition to the National Security Agency’s controversial surveillance programs with a national call-in day to Capitol Hill lawmakers this Tuesday, Rainey Reitman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation tells TIME.
The coalition of civil liberties groups began its efforts last Tuesday, when the site launched a petition urging Congress to put an end the NSA programs, which track Internet activity and collect American phone records.
Since then, Stop Watching Us has received over 167,000 electronic signatures and drawn support from groups like Occupy Wall Street NYC and an Ohio Tea Party Association. Each signature generates an e-mail to the author’s representative and two senators. In total, the group estimates it has facilitated around half a million e-mails being sent to Capitol Hill.
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Automated e-mails have limited affect in Washington, however, so the group is trying the next step: a switchboard-clogging phone campaign. “You can send emails to Congress by the thousands and sometimes they just fall on deaf inboxes,” Reitman says.
The call-in day will test whether there is actually sufficient support to make a difference on Capitol Hill. American Enterprise Institute scholar Gary Schmitt, a former staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and former executive director of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board during President Ronald Reagan’s second term, believes that Stop Watching Us would need a massive outpouring of calls to make any significant strides.
“Congressmen always pay attention to if there’s a popular movement,” Schmitt says. “But so far the polls indicate a general American public that’s fairly sensible about the need for this kind of effort by the intelligence community.”
The electorate is almost evenly divided on the issue. TIME’s recent poll found that a majority of Americans — 54 percent — support Edward Snowden’s decision to leak classified details of the surveillance programs, but that a nearly identical 53 percent also believe he should face charges for his actions.
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The poll found that younger Americans aged 18 to 34 are far more supportive of Snowden than older generations are. Just 19 percent of that age group say the leak was a “bad thing.” There has been broad youth support for reining in the surveillance programs, and Stop Watching Us hopes to energize these young Americans to participate in the phone-in efforts next week.
Organizers plan to try to make it easier on those who want to call in by partially automating the process. The call-in website will include a space for people to type in their phone number and address. From this information, the site will send a call to your phone that directs you to your representative’s office. In order to ease any intimidation callers might feel, Stop Watching Us will provide them with a scripted message that they can then repeat to the staffer once they pick up the line.
Stop Watching Us is a bipartisan coalition sponsored by over 100 civil liberty groups and Internet companies such as the World Wide Web Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Reddit. In addition to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, another key player in the movement is Mozilla, the creator of the popular Firefox web browser. Firefox’s estimated half a billion users who boot up their browsers now have a link to the petition displayed directly on the home page.
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“As a non-profit organization that’s really about empowering users on the Internet, our chief objective here is education,” says Alex Fowler, Mozilla’s head of privacy and public policy.
The organization plans additional outreach efforts, including visits to elected representatives’ offices and expanding the petition abroad.
AEI’s Gary Schmitt believes the impact on lawmakers will be minimal. “Congressmen are not actually reading their emails or listening to their phone calls,” he says. “I think the call-in day will reinforce the civil libertarians on the left and the right to move forward, but right at the moment they clearly aren’t a majority in Congress,” Schmitt says. “It will keep the issue alive, but it won’t be strategically decisive.”
Stop Watching Us says past successes show this latest campaign can work. The campaign’s efforts are reminiscent of the 7,000 websites and thousands of concerned callers who put an end to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in January of last year.
Correction on June 17: This article has been appended with the correct number of Firefox users.