In November, the FBI sent the nonprofit digital library a National Security Letter demanding personal information about an Internet Archive user. The letter requested the person's name, address, and other electronic records pertaining to the user.
The Internet Archive gives Web surfers access to the Wayback Machine, an archive of Web pages, many of which are no longer available.
It voluntarily provided publicly available information and identified more records that were not publicly available. At the same time, the Internet Archive sued to withhold the information contained in the nonpublic records. It claimed the letter violated free-speech rights -- since it stated that the library's founder could not discuss the letter with anyone except the library's attorneys.
The FBI announced this week that it settled the lawsuit by withdrawing the letter. Some parts of the once-sealed lawsuit are now public, but both parties agreed not to disclose certain portions of the letter and other documents.
"The information requested in the National Security Letter was relevant to an ongoing, authorized national security investigation," John Miller, assistant director of the FBI Office of Public Affairs, said in a statement. "National Security Letters remain indispensable tools for national security investigations and permit the FBI to gather the basic building blocks for our counterterrorism and counterintelligence investigations."
The government uses National Security Letters to get information from banks, credit reporting companies, and Internet service providers, among others, during investigations. It's standard practice for investigators to tell recipients they are prohibited from discussing the letters.
Critics contend that the letters are unconstitutional because of their secrecy, lack of oversight, and the recipients' limited ability to fight them.
Congress amended a provision of the Patriot Act in 2006 to limit the FBI's power to demand library records through the use of National Security Letters. Members of Congress are promoting legislation that would further restrict investigators' freedom to use the letters.