American Civil Liberties Union
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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is an American legal advocacy organization that defends US Constitutional rights through civil litigation, lobbying efforts, educational campaigns, and community organization. While not its sole purpose, the organization has historically focused much of its attention on issues surrounding the freedom of expression, and as expression has become increasingly mediated through online channels, the ACLU has fought numerous battles to protect individuals’ First and Fourth Amendment rights of free online expression, unsurveilled by government or corporate authorities.
Founded in 1920, the ACLU has been at the forefront of a number of precedent-setting cases in the US court system. It is perhaps most well-known for its defense of First Amendment rights, particularly in its willingness to take on unpopular or controversial cases, but has also regularly fought for equal access and protection from discrimination (particularly for groups of people who have traditionally been denied these rights under the law), Second Amendment protection for the right to bear arms, and due process under the law, amongst others. The ACLU has provided legal representation or amicus curiae briefs for a number of notable precedent-setting legal cases, including Tennessee v. Scopes (1921), Gitlow v. New York (1925), Korematsu v. United States (1944), Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Miranda v. Arizona (1966), Roe v. Wade (1973), and dozens of others. Its stated mission is “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.”
The balance between civil liberties and national security is an always-contentious relationship, and the ACLU has come down strongly on the side of privacy for citizens. The passage of the controversial USA PATRIOT Act in 2001 and its subsequent renewals led to sweeping governmental powers of warrantless surveillance, data collection, wiretapping, and data mining, many of which continue to today. Proponents of the bill defended its necessity in the name of national security in the digital age; opponents argued that it would fundamentally violate the civil rights of American citizens and create a surveillance state. The ACLU would be among the leading organizations challenging a number of practices resulting from the passage of the bill.
The cases during this era are numerous, but several are particularly noteworthy in their relationship to governmental and corporate data collection and surveillance. In 2004, the ACLU represented Calyx Internet Access, a New York internet service provider, in Doe v. Ashcroft. The FBI had ordered the ISP to hand over user data through issuing a National Security Letter, a de facto warrantless subpoena, along with issuing a gag order on discussing the existence of the inquiry, a common provision of this type of letter. In ACLU v. National Security Agency (NSA) (2006), the organization unsuccessfully led a lawsuit against the federal government arguing that its practice of warrantless wiretapping was a violation of Fourth Amendment protections. Similarly lawsuits were filed against AT&T, Verizon, and a number of other telecommunication corporations during this era. The ACLU would represent the plaintiffs in Clapper v. Amnesty International (2013), an unsuccessful attempt to challenge the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act’s provision that allows for the NSA’s warrantless surveillance and mass data collection and analysis of individuals’ electronic communications. It has strongly supported the whistleblower revelations of Edward Snowden in his 2013 leak of classified NSA documents detailing the extent of the organization’s electronic surveillance of the communications of over a billion people worldwide, including millions of domestic American citizens.
In terms of its advocacy campaigns, the organization has supported Digital 4th, a Fourth Amendment activist group, advocating for a non-partisan focus on new legislative action to update the now-outdated Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), a 30-year-old bill that still governs much of online privacy law. Similarly, the ACLU has strongly supported Net Neutrality, the equal distribution of high-speed broadband traffic. The Free Future campaign has made the case for governmental uses of technology in accountable, transparent, and constitutionally sound ways on such issues as body-worn cameras for police, digital surveillance and data mining, hacking and data breaches, and traffic cameras, amongst other technological issues, as well as through the Demand Your DotRights campaign. In 2003, the CAN-SPAM act was on its way through Congress, and the ACLU took the unpopular position that the act unjustly restricted the freedom of speech online and would serve as a chilling effect on speech, as it has continued to argue in several other anti-spam legislative bills.
The ACLU has built its name on defending civil rights, and the rise of information-based culture has resulted in a greatly expanded practice and scope of the organization’s focus. However, with cases such as the 2013–2014 revelations that came from the Snowden affair on NSA surveillance, it is clear that the ongoing tension between the rise of new information technologies, the government’s desire for surveillance in the name of national security, and the public’s right to Constitutional protection under the Fourth Amendment is far from resolved.
- American Civil Liberties Union. (2014). Key Issues/About Us. Available at https://www.aclu.org/key-issues.
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