It goes like this: The government imposes a silly, overly intrusive edict and claims it needs to do so to “promote health and safety” or hold down government spending. The stated purpose of the New York City Big Gulp ban was to prevent obesity, a condition that affects many Gothamites, and thus reduce city health costs. Never mind that obese people become obese for many reasons; Mayor Bloomberg decided to target big soda drinks. Then an industry group challenges the regulation in court, taxpayer-funded government lawyers and the industry-funded lawyers fight about the issue, and eventually a judge makes a ruling. Restraining orders get issued and appealed and the wheels of government grind to a halt while sideshow lawsuits addressing overreaching regulations command the public eye.
Does anyone think the framers of the Constitution would recognize our current government? Who among them would believe that government would some day outlaw certain foods on the ground that citizens can’t be trusted to consume them in moderation? Who among them would believe that one day judges would scrutinize and pass judgment on seemingly every government action?
We’ve strayed far from the initial concept of our Republic, where Americans were willing to fight and die for individual liberty and the right to representative government. We’re not heading in the right direction.
The FBI requests are called National Security Letters. For some time, FBI headquarters had been permitted to use NSLs in connection with espionage investigations. In 2001, the Patriot Act broadened the circumstances in which NSLs may be used, and also authorized FBI offices around the country to issue NSLs. Under current procedures, the FBI may issue NSLs to obtain name, address, length of service, and other information about computer users. No court approval or warrant is necessary. Companies receiving the FBI requests aren’t permitted to disclose the existence of the requests, although the recipient can challenge the NSLs in court.
Because of the prohibition on disclosure, Google could provide only summary numerical information about NSLs. The company said that, in 2012, it had received between 0 and 999 requests for information targeting between 1,000 and 1,999 accounts. That doesn’t sound too bad — but, of course, Google is only one of many companies that store, move, and organize data on the internet. Until we know more about the prevalence of NSLs, we can’t assess whether the FBI is appropriately using its authority to issue them.
We should all applaud Google’s effort to provide some information about NSLs and encourage other companies to do likewise. Whether you think NSLs are a necessary tool in the fight against terrorism or an ill-conceived exception to the warrant requirement, the American public should at least be advised about how frequently NSLs are used, and under what circumstances. Otherwise, how are informed citizens supposed to voice their views on the law to their elected representatives — and isn’t that how democracies are supposed to work?