When it comes to search privacy, one of the biggest worries in my book has been the US government’s ability under the Patriot Act to make secret requests for information that no one can know about. Last year this was ruled unconstitutional by one judge. Today, news is out about the Internet Archive winning against such a request.
Wired has a nice write-up explaining how the Federal Bureau Of Investigation served the Internet Archive last November with a "National Security Letter" covered by the Patriot Act, demanding records about a user’s name and activity on the site.
The Internet Archive, with the help of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, fought back. In April, an agreement was made for the letter to be withdrawn and to allow Brewster Kahle — who heads the Internet Archive — to talk about the case. As part of being served with the letter, he was prevented from talking about the demand. From the article:
The EFF, joined by the ACLU, initially used the letter to challenge the constitutionality of NSLs generally, saying the gag order violates the First Amendment. They also argued that the specific NSL used was illegal since the Internet Archive is a library, not a communications provider.
The settlement with the government puts an end to that challenge and still keeps Kahle and his lawyers from discussing — even in the most general terms – what the FBI was after and what public information the Internet Archive turned over to the FBI. For instance, the lawyers declined to say what kind of information the target was looking at or uploading — such as animal rights information or Muslim literature.
The ACLU has successfully quashed two other NSLs, including one request to a library system asking for web surfing histories of patrons and another to a small New York hosting provider asking for data about a website it hosted. The Internet Archive case is only the second time the courts allowed the recipient of a Patriot Act National Security Letter to reveal his or her identity
How was the letter served, if such letters were ruled unconstitutional back in September? That ruling is under appeal, so it seems the FBI and other federal agencies are carrying on with them.
And the link to search? My past post, Secret Requests For Search Records Through Patriot Act Ruled Unconstitutional, explains this more — including a highlight from John Battelle’s book The Search, where Google’s Sergey Brin responded that if Google felt such secret Patriot Act requests were a concern, they might have to fight against them.
As the Wired article points out, there are only three known court challenges to such requests. None are from search companies, so either they’re not being served with many or they’re complying silently.