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Patriot Act said to hinder Net freedoms

Some legislators and civil libertarians criticize the 6-month-old act, saying it could become an "unwise and unnecessary" restriction on free speech.

Some lawmakers and civil libertarians are attacking the 6-month-old Patriot Act, saying it has "created the danger that Americans will be afraid to communicate freely over the Internet."

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Rep. Patsy Mink, D-Hi., along with the Free Expression Network--a coalition of organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center--blasted the act, saying it risks becoming an "unwise and unnecessary" restriction on free speech.

The bill, passed in the weeks following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, gives law enforcement unprecedented powers to monitor people's activities, including their Web and e-mail habits.

Group members issued a statement during a Capitol Hill briefing Thursday, saying that while they "support legitimate law enforcement activities designed to bring to justice the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks and to prevent future attacks on our security, we oppose doing so in ways that fundamentally threaten democracy."

The group spoke out against a variety of alleged abuses--including detaining people without charging them or disclosing their identities, suppressing public debate, and needlessly monitoring citizens' Internet use.

For example, the group said that librarians can be forced to turn over records of patrons' Web surfing habits without telling them, and already 15 government agencies have removed "sensitive" information from the Internet.

Many of the alleged abuses the group cited have already been reported. Feingold said libraries and bookstores continue to be subpoenaed, although he couldn't give details. New examples of actions under the Patriot Act have been hard to come by because, in addition to giving law enforcement expanded surveillance powers, the act also makes it easier for the government to keep its actions secret.

"It's difficult to get numbers or details on those situations," said ACLU legislative counsel Marvin Johnson, who attended the event.

The Free Expression Network urged lawmakers to consider toning down the bill.

"The hasty measures that were taken in the immediate wake of the attacks of Sept. 11 should now be reconsidered, and we should reaffirm the right to free expression, open government, discussion and debate that have kept us strong and free for more than 200 years," the group said in a statement.