Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Holding Back Big Brother: House votes to Protect Library Privacy!

The comparisons to George Orwell continue.

Scene from 1984

In 1984, George Orwell wrote of the ever-intrusive "Big Brother", a government intent on knowing everything about everyone. Including what they thought and what they read.

As he wrote:
Behind Winston's back the voice from the telescreen was still babbling away about pig-iron and the overfulfilment of the Ninth Three-Year Plan. The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live -- did live, from habit that became instinct -- in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.
Thought Police? But that is fiction you say. Maybe. In America, since the passage of the Patriot Act, library searches are allowed.

Fortunately, the United States House of Representatives voted last Wednesday by 238-187 to limit this activity. We do have leaders in America who recognize that one of the cornerstones of our freedom is our ability to choose to read or inform ourselves at our own public libraries without the threat of "Big Brother" monitoring us.

However, this has not pleased the Bush Administration which has threatened to veto any such changes. As reported:
According to the New York Times, the Bush administration sent out a letter earlier this week calling the potential use of library and bookstore information a valuable tool in the war on terror. The letter, from assistant U.S. attorney general William Moschella, reportedly argues that "bookstores and libraries should not be carved out as safe havens for terrorists and spies, who have, in fact, used public libraries to do research and communicate with their co-conspirators."
But the story gets better. As reported in the same article:
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told Congress in April that the government has never used the provision to obtain library, bookstore, medical or gun sale records.

But when asked whether the administration would agree to exclude library and medical records from the law, Gonzales demurred. "It should not be held against us that we have exercised restraint," he said.
But hold on a second.

In the June 20th edition of the New York Times, it is reported:
Law enforcement officials have made at least 200 formal and informal inquiries to libraries for information on reading material and other internal matters since October 2001, according to a new study that adds grist to the growing debate in Congress over the government's counterterrorism powers.
The article continues:
In some cases, agents used subpoenas or other formal demands to obtain information like lists of users checking out a book on Osama bin Laden. Other requests were informal - and were sometimes turned down by librarians who chafed at the notion of turning over such material, said the American Library Association, which commissioned the study.
But technically, we don't really know whether the Justice department is covering up the truth on this question. Because the library association didn't directly ask about whether the Patriot Act had been used. Because responding to this question is a crime under the Patriot Act. As noted:
The study does not directly answer how or whether the Patriot Act has been used to search libraries. The association said it decided it was constrained from asking direct questions on the law because of secrecy provisions that could make it a crime for a librarian to respond. Federal intelligence law bans those who receive certain types of demands for records from challenging the order or even telling anyone they have received it.
Does this sound bizarre or what?

The similarities to the Orwellian novel 1984 are chilling!

As Orwell wrote:
The Ministry of Truth -- Minitrue, in Newspeak -- was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air. From where Winston stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party:


America deserves better! America needs a government that fights terrorism but also respects the privacy of its citizens. America needs a government that is honest and open and does not hide under shrouds of secrecy! America needs a 2005 that looks more like the future than a fictional dystopia.



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