Google, Facebook, ACLU, and others urge Senate to fix watered down NSA bill

senate blocks usa freedom act on data collection reform

Tech companies, civil liberties groups and human rights organizations are calling on the Senate to re-introduce a more comprehensive version of a once-promising NSA reform bill. The USA Freedom Act, which was passed by Congress on May 22, lost the backing of privacy advocates after the House took out several provisions to garner bipartisan support.   

Reform Government Surveillance — a coalition comprised of Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Twitter, Dropbox, LinkedIn, Yahoo, and AOL — called on Senators to fix the bill, citing the need to inspire more confidence in the Internet around the world.  

“Unfortunately, the version that just passed the House of Representatives could permit bulk collection of Internet “metadata” (e.g. who you email and who emails you), something that the Administration and Congress said they intended to end. Moreover, while the House bill permits some transparency, it is critical to our customers that the bill allow companies to provide even greater detail about the number and type of government requests they receive for customer information,” the coalition said in a press release.

A coalition comprised of Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Twitter, Dropbox, LinkedIn, Yahoo, and AOL called on Senators to fix the bill.

Civil liberties and human rights organizations echoed the group’s sentiments, saying that the current version of the legislation may give authorities enough leeway for abuse. In a letter addressed to Senate leaders, a coalition led by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch stated that it is “very concerned” about the changes introduced to the bill.  

“All of the undersigned organizations believed the original version of the USA Freedom Act introduced in both the House and the Senate was an important step towards comprehensive reform. However, we are very concerned about the changes made to the bill in the House and the breadth of the surveillance that the bill could abusively be read to authorize,” the group said in a press release

“Before passage by the House, both the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees marked up the bill and reported out identical language. However, the final bill passed by the House markedly differs from both the original bill and the bill reported out of the committees … We respectfully submit that careful, public and deliberate consideration of this legislation by the Senate, beginning with full process in the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, is now necessary to ensure that the legislation truly achieves its unambiguously defined objectives.”

While one of the bill’s authors, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wi), admits that the legislation is weaker than its original version, he still insists that it can still prevent the NSA from collecting phone metadata. 

The EFF disagrees. In an earlier press release, the organization withdrew its support of the bill, saying: “The Electronic Frontier Foundation cannot support a bill that doesn’t achieve the goal of ending mass spying.” 

The most contentious part of the bill is its new definition of “specific selection term,” which outlines who or what the NSA can monitor. The original definition of specific selection term was information “uniquely describes a person, entity, or account.” In the new version of the bill, it was expanded to “person, entity, account, address, or device.”

“The new version not only adds the undefined words “address” and “device,” but makes the list of potential selection terms open-ended by using the term “such as.” Congress has been clear that it wishes to end bulk collection, but given the government’s history of twisted legal interpretations, this language can’t be relied on to protect our freedoms,” the EFF said.   

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who is credited as a co-author of the bill, said that the legislation will be taken up in the Judiciary Committee this month. While he expressed dismay over the version of the bill that passed Congress, he indicated that he is looking to bring back the tougher version of the bill. 

“I hope we can add back in some of the reforms they had to take out of the House, reforms that both Congressman Sensenbrenner and I strongly support,” he said.

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