One burning issue at Midwinter was the appropriate response to the USA PATRIOT Act, and ALA units, including the Committee on Legislation and the Intellectual Freedom Committee, spent days in discussion, crafting resolutions. Sweeping provisions in the act compromise privacy, they said, because they override state library confidentiality laws protecting library records and do not require law enforcement officials seeking records to demonstrate “probable cause” regarding a crime. Some favored calling for a repeal of the act’s provisions relating to libraries, while others, heeding the counsel of some speakers at an ALA Washington Office briefing, favored a more nuanced call for mitigation of the act.
Eventually Council rejected the harder line approach, voting 90 – 60 not to call for eliminating portions of the act. However, the final resolution did beef up the alternative approach, not only encouraging librarians to defend user privacy but also asking ALA to take action to obtain and publicize information about surveillance and assess the impact on libraries. The resolution further urges Congress to provide active oversight of implementation of the act; hold hearings to determine the extent of the surveillance of library users and their communities; and amend or change the sections of those laws and the guidelines that threaten the rights of inquiry and free expression.
Ironically, some feared that the FBI was monitoring the conference itself, as Councilor June Pinnell-Stephens reported that a librarian had encountered an “FBI agent” in a local restaurant. It turned out that the agent was retired and visiting with a librarian friend.
Besides government action, available technology threatens privacy. At a meeting of the Top Technology Trends committee of LITA (Library and Information Technology Association), confidentiality of online patron records generated the most interest.
The problem is a complex one, and even if librarians feel they are diligent by erasing circulation records, “broken links can still be restored,” as one committee member noted, with data elimination assured only if disks are rewritten. When libraries connect to remote databases, they have even less control over the collection and retention of usage data.
Back in 1997 and 1998, ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) offered national seminars for lawyers interested in representing libraries. Now, as libraries face challenging issues regarding Internet policies and the Patriot Act, the need for legal representation has grown.
Thus OIF has announced a new series of training institutes. “Lawyers for Libraries” (www.ala.org/lawyers) will feature sessions on The Library as a Public Forum; Unprotected Speech; Minimizing Liability (specifically regarding Internet filtering as well as “hostile work environment” issues); and Privacy and Confidentiality (especially in light of the Patriot Act).