Libraries, the Internet, and Civil Liberties Threatened
Libraries, the Internet, and Civil Liberties Threatened in the US and Canada
Scarcely six weeks after the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001, the United States government rushed into law the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism, or USA PATRIOT Act, which was intended to strengthen the government's ability to track and apprehend alleged terrorists. Civil liberty groups were quick to point out that many of its provisions posed serious threats to the very liberties and freedoms the "war on terrorism" was supposed to be defending. None of the provisions was more controversial than the one giving the FBI the right to demand the borrowing records of library patrons to determine if the books they were borrowing indicated a threat of terrorism. This was one element of the Act that was supposed to expire at the end of 2005; in July Congress voted to make the Act permanent and extend the Library record provision for 10 years.
A suit has been filed against U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and FBI Director Robert Mueller in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut.
"The suit -- filed on August 9 and made public by the ACLU on Thursday -- calls the FBI's order to produce library records 'unconstitutional on its face' and said a gag order preventing public discussion of the lawsuit is an unlawful restraint on speech.
Critical details of the lawsuit were blacked out on the ACLU's Web site in compliance with the gag order. The library is thought to be based in Connecticut since the lawsuit was filed there with the participation of the Connecticut branch of the ACLU.
The ACLU said in its lawsuit that legal changes made under the Patriot Act 'remove any requirement of individualized suspicion, (and) the FBI may now ... demand sensitive information about innocent people.'"
This is not the first time American Librarians have opposed the Act; it has been a major issue for four years and is dealt with on the American Library Association's webpage on the USA PATRIOT Act as a library advocacy issue.
We in Canada should not be so complacent, however and think that this is only something that could happen in America. As the Globe and Mail reported on August 19th,
"The federal government will introduce legislation this fall that would give police and national security agencies new powers to eavesdrop on cellphone calls and monitor the Internet activities of Canadians, Justice Minister Irwin Cotler said yesterday. The bill would allow police to demand that Internet service providers hand over a wide range of information on the surfing habits of individuals, including on-line pseudonyms and whether someone possesses a mischief-making computer virus, according to a draft outline of the bill provided to the Privacy Commissioner of Canada."
Civil liberty advocates in Canada are concerned that
"the proposed law goes too far and could ultimately be used to nab Canadians as they engage in relatively minor offences such as downloading music, movies and computer software without paying for them. The law would force Internet service providers to retain records on the Internet use of its clients in such a way that it can be easily retrieved by police, doing away with the need in many cases to seize an individual's computer as part of an investigation."
Considering the extent to which public and academic libraries are used by members of the public for internet use, it doesn't seem unlikely that this law will have serious implications for Canadian libraries.
Sarfraz Chishti, Canada
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