Just An Online Minute... FBI Retreat: Victory For Online Privacy

The ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation convinced the FBI to back down from a demand for information about a user of the nonprofit digital library Internet Archive.

The archive, which runs the Wayback Machine (offering around 55 billion pages of old Web pages), received a National Security Letter from the FBI last November. That letter sought information about one of the archive's users, including the person's name, address and activity. It also contained a directive ordering the recipient not to discuss the matter with anyone except his lawyer.

As it turned out, Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle knew some lawyers: He is also on the board of the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation.

That group and the ACLU sued, arguing that Congress in 2006 amended the Patriot Act to restrict the FBI's ability to order libraries to disclose information about users. Faced with this court challenge, the FBI backed down from the request at the end of last month, and also agreed to unseal the documents in the case. Those were made public for the first time Wednesday.

What's remarkable isn't that the FBI retreated from a clearly unconstitutional attempt to force an online library to reveal information, but that the agency isn't taken to court more often.

The FBI has issued more than 200,000 National Security Letters, but the Internet Archive case marks only the third known instance of a court challenge. So far, courts have ruled against the FBI in all three. One involved an attempt to discover information from a library about users' Web surfing activity; in the other, the government sought information from a New York state Internet service provider about a site it hosted.

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