Tech Giants Pile On In Support Of The NSA-Curtailing USA FREEDOM Act

Following previous gestures of support, a grip of technology trade groups representing the industry’s largest players signed and released a letter expressing support for the House’s USA FREEDOM Act, a bill that would curtail the government’s bulk surveillance programs.

Previously, the technology group Reform Government Surveillance noted its support. That consortium is now joined by TechNet, the Internet Association, the Information Technology Industry Council, and the Computer and Communications Industry Association in substantiation of the bill.

A vote is expected on the bill this week, and there are calls in the Senate to follow the lower chamber on the measure.

The groups were explicit in their praise:

The USA Freedom Act as introduced in the House and Senate on April 28th offers an effective balance that both protects privacy and provides the necessary tools for national security, and we congratulate those who participated in the bipartisan, bicameral effort that produced the legislative text. Critically, the bill ends the indiscriminate collection of bulk data, avoids data retention mandates, and creates a strong transparency framework for both government and private companies to report national security requests.

Finding a working compromise between a government that has a proven thirst for ever-increasing quantities of data of and on both domestic, and foreign individuals, and corporations focused on selling cloud-based products to extra-United States entities hasn’t been easy.

In the wake of the revelations kicked off by the controversial Edward Snowden leaks, Congress has tried, and failed, to reform the NSA.

The legal structure, however, that underpins key NSA activities is set to sunset next month, leading to an artificial, planned crisis — if the PATRIOT Act isn’t re-upped in one way or another, the authority that the NSA depends on to collect, for example, phone records on every, or nearly every phone call placed in the United States will expire.

As such, it’s a prime moment for an attempt at reform, even if prior efforts couldn’t quite find their pants. However, as TechCrunch’s own Cat Zakrzewski wrote recently, not all privacy advocates are satisfied:

But even with […] 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.

As that piece noted, the ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer said that the bill “does not go nearly far enough.” The ACLU recently won a court case ruling that the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone metadata superseded its Congressional authorization, implying an arrogation of authority.

That said, I doubt that anyone expected corporations to hold out for a fix that would suit privacy advocates, especially after the failure of the last Congress to pass anything. Call it reform by degrees.

At play in all of the above is the simple economic reality that private American technology companies want to sell cloud products around the world. And if foreign buyers presume that the NSA can, at its whim, demand their data be predicated on the fact that their chosen vendor is headquartered in the United States, they might pick an extra-U.S.-based provider. And that’s, say, unpopular with profit-seeking tech firms.

Ergo, the letter.