The Internet Archive published a formerly secret national security letter (NSL) today that includes misinformation about how to contest the accompanying gag order that demanded total secrecy about the request. As a result of the Archive’s challenge to the letter, the FBI has agreed to send clarifications about the law to potentially thousands of communications providers who have received NSLs in the last year and a half.
The NSL issued to the Archive said the library had the right to “make an annual challenge to the nondisclosure requirement.” But in 2015, Congress updated the law to allow for more than one request a year, so that communications providers could speak out about their experience without unneeded delay. Represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the Archive informed the FBI that it did not have the information the agency was seeking and pointed out the legal error. The FBI agreed to drop the gag order in this case and allow the publication of the NSL.
“The free flow of information is at the heart of the Internet Archive’s work, but by using national security letters in conjunction with unconstitutional gag orders, the FBI is trying to keep us all in the dark,” said Brewster Kahle, founder and digital librarian of the Internet Archive. “Here, it’s even worse: that secrecy helped conceal that the FBI was giving all NSL recipients bad information about their rights. So we especially wanted to make this NSL public to give libraries and other institutions more information and help them protect their users from any improper FBI requests.”
The Archive received this NSL in August, more than a year after Congress changed the law to allow more gag order challenges. In its letter removing the gag order, the FBI acknowledged that it issued other NSLs that included the error, and stated that it will inform all recipients about the mistake. Given that the FBI has said that it issued about 13,000 NSLs last year, thousands of communications providers likely received the false information, and potentially delayed petitioning the court for the right to go public.
“The opaque NSL process—including the lack of oversight by a court—makes it very vulnerable to errors of law. Add to that the routine use of gags and enforced secrecy, and those errors become difficult to find and correct,” said EFF Staff Attorney Andrew Crocker. “We are grateful to the Internet Archive for standing up to the FBI and shining some light on this error. We hope that others who receive the correction will also step forward to have their gags lifted and shine more light on these unconstitutional data collection tools.”
This is the second NSL that the Internet Archive has published after battling with the FBI. In 2007, the Archive received an NSL that exceeded the FBI’s authority to issue demands to libraries. With help from EFF and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the FBI withdrew the letter and agreed to let the Archive go public in May of 2008.
But many gag orders are still in place. Yesterday, CREDO Mobile confirmed it was at the center of EFF's long-running fight against NSLs after a three-year-old gag order was finally revoked. Along with CREDO's case, EFF is litigating two other challenges to NSL gag orders on behalf of communications providers who are still gagged.
For the national security letter published by the Internet Archive:
For more on the fight against NSLs: