Reader Privacy Fight Resumes in Congress
Monday, 31 January 2011 | Judith Platt
Just four weeks before controversial portions of the USA Patriot Act are set to expire, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) last week reintroduced a reauthorization bill that would restore protections for reader privacy that were eliminated by the Patriot Act in 2001. The Leahy bill, S. 193, was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2009 when Congress last considered reauthorization, but never received a vote by the full Senate. (The expiring provisions of the Patriot Act were extended for one year without any changes.) It provides important safeguards for library records, limiting FBI searches to the records of people who are “agents of a foreign power,” including suspected terrorists, and people known to them. This heightened protection would eliminate the danger of the federal government using its broad search power to conduct fishing expeditions into what people are reading. The Patriot Act currently authorizes the FBI to search any records that are “relevant” to a terrorist investigation, including the records of people who are not suspected of criminal conduct.
The Campaign for Reader Privacy, which represents librarians, booksellers, authors and publishers, supports S. 193, the USA Patriot Act Sunset Extension Act of 2011, as an important step forward. However, the bill does not provide additional protection for the records of bookstore customers, which could still be searched whenever the FBI believes they are “relevant.” Barbara Jones, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, called on Congress to protect the privacy of reader records in bookstores as well as libraries. “We appreciate the heightened protection afforded library records for those Americans who borrow books. The next logical step would be to safeguard the First Amendment rights of Americans who purchase books in a bookstore. In both instances, reader privacy must be maintained," she said.
The Campaign for Reader Privacy noted that in a December 9 letter to Leahy, Attorney General Eric Holder promised to implement many of the reforms that were contained in Leahy’s 2009 reauthorization bill, including the provision strengthening reader privacy. Holder said the added protections would apply to both libraries and bookstores. “Taken together, I believe these measures will advance the goals of....enhancing the privacy and civil liberties our citizens enjoy without compromising our ability to keep our nation safe and secure,” Holder wrote.
The Campaign for Reader Privacy was organized in 2004 by the American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association, the Association of American Publishers, and PEN American Center. Its goal is to ensure that Americans can purchase and borrow books without fear that the government is reading over their shoulder. For more information, visit www.readerprivacy.org