Each month, BORDC recognizes an individual who has done outstanding work in support of civil liberties and the rule of law by honoring that person with our Patriot Award. This month, we honor Nicholas Merrill for his fight against privacy violations and national security letters.
In early 2004, Nick Merrill, owner of Internet service provider Calyx Internet in New York, received a national security letter (NSL) directing him to provide the FBI with constitutionally protected and private information on numerous clients. The letter also contained a gag order which prohibited him from telling anyone—even an attorney—about the letter.
Feeling his rights as an American were being violated, Nick disobeyed the order and contacted his private attorney, who connected him with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU brought a case against then-Attorney General John Ashcroft on Nick’s behalf, though because of the gag order, Nick wasn’t publicly named in the suit. His case, Doe v. Ashcroft, lasted six long years during which Nick was forced to hide his identity. Finally, in August 2010, he was partially released from the gag order.
“Despite being struck down as unconstitutional back in 2004, the gag is still affecting me on a daily basis, now, years later in 2012,” Nick says. “The law intends for gag orders to be coercive and threatening and I must say they are. Having the threat of five years in prison whenever I talk about the case is still a burden on me today.”
Between the years 2003 and 2006, the government issued more than 192,000 NSLs. The numbers are still high, with almost 25,000 Americans receiving NSLs in 2010, double the amount from the previous year. Because of Nick’s case, the gag orders that now accompany NSLs allow the recipient to contact an attorney; however, the recipient’s right to redress is still extremely limited.
Nick’s experience inspired him to start the Calyx Institute, a nonprofit organization advocating privacy over profits for telecommunications companies. He says the greatest risk to privacy today “is complacency on the part of providers (telecom, Internet, and web based software) in terms of not doing everything they can to provide privacy to the best of their abilities.”
He urges individuals to avoid business with providers that do not commit to protecting the privacy of their patrons. “The internet will only continue to be an even more important part of our political and private lives,” he said.
He says he is not worried that he will receive another NSL, even though his business as an Internet provider makes him a common target. Even if he felt at risk, it wouldn’t matter, he says. “I am so concerned at the direction the telecommunications industry has been heading over the past decade that it is worth the risk.”
We thank Nick Merrill for his courage in standing up against the FBI's attempts to invade individual privacy and are honored to recognize him with our Patriot Award.