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Congress fails to protect reader privacy again

(PEN American Center/IFEX) - Washington, DC, May 27, 2011 - Organizations representing booksellers, librarians, publishers and authors today expressed frustration and disappointment at the decision by Congress yesterday to re-authorize the expiring provisions of the USA Patriot Act for four years without restoring the safeguards protecting the privacy of bookstore and library records that were eliminated when the Patriot Act was passed in 2001. As a result, the government will continue to have the power to search the bookstore and library records of people who are not suspected of criminal acts, much less terrorism. "We are deeply disappointed by the failure of Congress to protect the privacy of America's readers," Oren Teicher, chief executive officer of the American Booksellers Association, said.

Larry Siems, director of the Freedom to Write Program of PEN American Center, criticized Congress for ignoring a bipartisan bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee that restored reader privacy safeguards and required government agencies to perform audits to ensure that the Patriot Act is not being used to violate civil liberties. "With strong support from both sides of the aisles for meaningful Patriot Act reform, it is hard not to feel like good sense and the will of the people was thwarted," Siems said.

The Senate approved the Patriot re-authorization bill, S. 990, by a vote of 72-23. The House vote was 250-153. Debate on amendments to the bills granting a blanket 4-year extension to the expiring Patriot Act provisions was severely curtailed in both houses.

Reader privacy advocates take some comfort from Attorney General Eric Holder's promise in December that the FBI will not use the full power of the Patriot Act to search bookstore and library records. The Patriot Act gives the government the right to secretly search the records of anyone who is "relevant" to a terrorism investigation. However, in a letter to Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Holder promised the government would voluntarily restrict its searches of bookstores and libraries to the records of people who are actually suspected of terrorism and people who are known to them.

The Campaign for Reader Privacy was organized in 2004 by the American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association, the Association of American Publishers, and PEN American Center. Its goal is to ensure that Americans can purchase and borrow books without fear that the government is reading over their shoulder.

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