Tech Companies Line Up Behind Surveillance Reform Bill

A wide range of companies today released their support for a surveillance reform bill that would effectively end the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.

Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Reform Government Surveillance, a lobbying group representing many tech companies including AOL (they write my paychecks), came out backing the 2015 version of the FREEDOM Act.

“We support the bicameral, bipartisan legislation, which ends existing bulk collection practices under the USA Patriot Act and increases transparency and accountability while also protecting U.S. national security,” Reform Government Surveillance said in a statement.

“We thank Representatives Goodlatte, Sensenbrenner, Conyers and Nadler and Senators Lee, Leahy, Heller, and Franken, as well as other Members, who have worked hard over the past several months to draft a common sense bill that addresses the concerns of industry, the Intelligence Community, and civil society in a constructive and balanced manner. We look forward to working with Congress to pass this legislation by June 1st.”

The bill comes as a provision of the PATRIOT Act that authorizes the most controversial of the NSA surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden is set to sunset at the end of next month. Though the bill bears the same name as the legislation Congress failed to pass last year, it appears to include concessions to lawmakers concerned about national security that make it weaker than previous proposals.

Lawmakers backing the bill are advertising it as stronger on privacy and national security than a measure that died in a narrow procedural vote on the Senate floor in November. It’s impossible to do both, and critics say this bill goes too far on compromises.

Like the last bill, the FREEDOM Act would effectively end the government’s bulk collection of telephone metadata by allowing phone companies to store those records. The new version requires that the NSA use more specific selection terms, so that it can not search for records from an entire state or city. The new bill would also increase the amount of information American technology companies can disclose about their responses to national security orders.

But even with these new privacy and transparency measures, the bill makes concerning concessions on that front when it comes to national security. The last FREEDOM Act failed with a string of Republicans taking the Senate floor and warning drastic reforms would hinder the fight against ISIS.

Critics say the bill is better than a clean reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act, but worry about some of the changes made. Civil liberties groups are particularly concerned about a component of the bill that would increase the statutory maximum prison sentence to 20 years for providing material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization.

“The bill does not go nearly far enough,” said Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU. “This bill would make only incremental improvements, and at least one provision—the material-support provision—would represent a significant step backwards. The disclosures of the last two years make clear that we need wholesale reform. Congress should let Section 215 sunset as it’s scheduled to, and then it should turn to reforming the other surveillance authorities that have been used to justify bulk collection.”
Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy, sent an email to the press criticizing the bill’s transparency requirements. He said though the bill was a step in the right direction, it lacked many of the transparency compromises that were negotiated in last year’s bill.
“The House bill introduced today left a lot of those changes on the negotiating table. Under this bill, the government won’t have to say how many people had their communications collected under the law that authorized the PRISM program,” Bedoya wrote. “It also won’t have to say how many Americans have had their communications data collected under the PATRIOT Act. “

Additionally, this bill will allow foreign nationals to be monitored for up to 72 hours upon entering the United States. It also preserves the intelligence-gathering authorities. According to the literature distributed by the Judiciary Committee, this bill will reauthorize Section 215 and roving wiretaps to 2019.

Although such provisions are far from ideal, it is expected that, with the changed landscape since Congress last took up NSA reform, any measure would have to do more to address national security concerns than the bill last year. It is promising that the bill’s backers met those changes with additions to the privacy and transparency language, and it goes much further than the measure we saw introduced in the Senate.

Libertarian groups are calling Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to change course on surveillance reform. Last week the Kentucky senator introduced a bill that would cleanly reauthorize the PATRIOT Act until 2020.

As Congress rushes to address surveillance before the PATRIOT Act provision expires, the New York Times reported over the weekend the government has little evidence the phone record collection program has been effective. But even with that report, there seems to be little support from lawmakers to let the PATRIOT Act provision expire. Compared to the bill on the table in the other chamber of Congress, the House bill is the lesser of two evils. The FREEDOM Act will be marked up in the House tomorrow.