A New York federal district Judge has lifted the gag order that prevented Nicholas Merrill, the owner of a small Internet service provider, from speaking up and telling his customers about a National Security Letter (NSL) he had received in 2004. The NSL was an order demanding customer information to be released to the FBI without a warrant, and without the possibility of challenge from the customers in question. NSLs have been extensively used since the FBI was granted the authority as part of the Patriot Act in 2001.
Merrill kept fighting this case, alongside the ACLU and with support from the EFF, and has now won his case, being the first NSL gag order to be lifted by a federal judge in the 14 years they have been issued, according to The Intercept. A press release from the Calyx Institute, where Merrill serves as director, quoted his thoughts on this victory
“For more than a decade, the FBI has fought tooth and nail in order to prevent me from speaking freely about the NSL I received,” said Mr. Merrill. “Judge Marrero’s decision vindicates the public’s right to know how the FBI uses warrantless surveillance to peer into our digital lives. I hope today’s victory will finally allow Americans to engage in an informed debate about proper the scope of the government’s warrantless surveillance powers.”
The press release goes on to mention that the gag order is not yet out of effect, as the government still has 90 days to appeal the decision before Merrill can inform his users about the contents of the NSL, but this is certainly a positive step in the direction of government transparency, and fits closely with the spirit of the 4th Amendment.