What is it about librarians that makes them such fierce advocates for freedom?
Back in 2008, I wrote a diary highlighting a group of Connecticut librarians who, when issued a dubious national security letter by the FBI, decided to stand up to the government (and for democracy) and successfully challenged the dictates of the Patriot Act in court. That diary stands to this day as the most Tipped & Rec'd diary I ever penned here.
[And for the sake of shameless self-promotion] in case you missed it, and, if so inclined, you can read this truly inspirational story here: The mild-mannered Librarians who took on the Patriot Act... and WON!
But, I digress...
Frankly, this current story reminded me so much of that old story I felt compelled to write about it this morning.
In the esoteric world of mass surveillance controlled by the NSA and a complex network of other surveillance agencies in our government, an unassuming librarian named Kirsten Clark from the University of Minnesota hardly seems the type to become a major figure in the middle of the ongoing fight to rein in the activities of the intelligence community. But she and others have indeed found themselves on the front lines in the struggle to curb government efforts at collecting bulk electronic data.
In an alliance that stretches all the political clichés about “strange bedfellows,” librarians and civil libertarians are on the same side as gun activists and Internet giants Facebook and Google in backing bipartisan legislation in Congress that would roll back the federal government’s authority to snoop on Americans. In the past year, their agenda has taken on a global dimension with the revelations of fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden.Whatever your opinion is of Edward Snowden, that the man has inspired people of conscience both here and abroad... cannot be denied. And it's spreading.
“When someone posts information to social media, they make the choice in theHowever it turns out in the end, recent conflicting rulings on the collection of metadata in the district courts have virtually assured a number of cases will eventually reach the SCOTUS for resolution.
level of privacy they want to give to others,” said Clark, the Intellectual Committee Chair of the Minnesota Library Association.
“With mass collection of private data, whether library records or cellphone activity, the decision on privacy has been taken away from the individual. The potential harm comes from not knowing what has been collected or how it will be used,” she said.
In the meantime...
The pressure is certain to be felt when Congress returns in January to take up more than two dozen bills that seek to either curb NSA collection efforts or make them more transparent.Working with its national chapter in D.C., the Minnesota Library Association is backing House legislation written by Wisconsin Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner one of the original authors of the Patriot Act -- that would both restrict the NSA's efforts at collecting bulk data sweeps, and lift the obligatory gag orders commonly known as national security letters that force, under penalty of law, librarians and other targets to remain quiet about anything to do with agency requests they receive.
“We now have all three branches of government involved,” said Lynne Bradley, director of government relations for the American Library Association. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”
The post 9/11 Patriot Act not only opened library computer logs and book borrowing records to federal agents, it also barred librarians from even acknowledging or talking about government data requests. The upshot is there is no way for the public to know if the NSA or the FBI have tapped such data in Minnesota.But to Kirsten Clark and others, that uncertainty is a detriment to the spirit of intellectual freedom and research, especially in an educational context.
“It is the chilling effect that comes from citizens knowing their information-seeking habits might be monitored, which in turn has the potential to limit learning and the freedom to read,” said Clark.Sensenbrenner had this to say recently...
“The slow trickle of revelations that began in June about NSA spying have exposed the most intrusive and secretive programs in American history.”
His USA Freedom Act would address librarians’ concerns by raising the legal standards used to justify dragnet-style collection of business records, including library logs and — not incidentally — gun registries and other types of commercial data. Along with the American Library Association, the bill has garnered support from strange [political] bedfellows such as the ACLU and the NRA.
Congressional supporters of the bill include among others [co-author] Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Ct.) who's particular concerns with the NSA's activities lie with transparency and oversight issues. Other supporters include Minnesota Democrats Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum in the House.
McCollum said that while monitoring communications is an “essential” security tool, the NSA’s surveillance of law-abiding U.S. citizens is “an abuse of our privacy and basic civil liberties.”Also on the Minnesotan front, U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken have yet to take a firm stance on the legislation but Klobuchar does support allowing libraries to publicly disclose when they receive national security letters. And Senator Franken has introduced his own legislation (albeit more limited in scope) that would require greater transparency in government surveillance programs.
Minnesotans should join with their local librarians and continue to pressure these politicians into taking a clear, firm stance on the subject, and get on board.
Although, Clark herself admits there's only so much the librarians can do like helping students research voting records and contact members of Congress, ultimately, I believe Kirsten Clark and her fellow librarians have inspired many other conscientious citizens all around the country to demand change in America. She certainly inspired me. (not that I needed it)
Despite appearing slightly duplicitous on the subject of mass surveillance, lobbying giants from Microsoft to the NRA, and others are beginning to speak out as well, and ramp up pressure in Washington.