Statement: OTI Withdraws Support for USA FREEDOM Act After House Leaders and Obama Administration Water Down Its Surveillance Reforms

Published:   May 20, 2014
WASHINGTON, DC —Today, the US House of Representatives’ Rules Committee reported the version of the USA FREEDOM Act surveillance reform bill that is expected to be voted on by the entire House on Thursday.  This new version of the bill is substantially different from the compromise version of the USA FREEDOM Act that was unanimously approved the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees two weeks ago.  The changes are the result of the Obama Administration pressuring House leaders to weaken various reforms in the bill.
 
The following statement can be attributed to Kevin Bankston, Policy Director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute:
 
“House leaders should have allowed a vote on the compromise version of the USA FREEDOM Act that was already agreed to, rather than undermining their own members and caving in to the intelligence community’s demands.  We recognize the need for the USA FREEDOM Act to move forward now, in order to avoid a worse bill or no bill at all.  However, we cannot in good conscience support this weakened version of the bill, where key reforms—especially those intended to end bulk collection and increase transparency—have been substantially watered down.  We're gravely disappointed that rather than respecting the wishes of the unanimous Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, the House leadership and the Obama Administration have chosen to disrupt the hard-fought compromise that so many of us were willing to support just two weeks ago.
 
 “The original USA FREEDOM Act was a great leap forward on surveillance reform, and the compromise version of two weeks ago was still a big step forward, but today’s version is merely leaning in the right direction.  Much of what has been weakened in the House version of USA FREEDOM will have to be restored in the Senate before the privacy and civil liberties community will be willing to support this bill again.”
 
Robyn Greene, OTI’s new Policy Counsel specializing in surveillance issues, expressed specific concerns about changes to the bill’s language intended to ban bulk collection:
 
“We are especially disappointed by the weakening of the language intended to prohibit bulk collection of innocent Americans’ records.  Although we are still hopeful that the bill’s language will end the bulk collection of telephone records and prevent indiscriminate collection of other types of records, it may still allow data collection on a dangerously massive scale.  Put another way, it may ban ‘bulk’ collection of all records of a particular kind, but still allow for ‘bulky’ collection impacting the privacy of millions of people.  Before this bill becomes law, Congress must make clear—either through amendments to the bill, through statements in the legislative record, or both—that mass collection of innocent people’s records isn’t allowed.  We particularly call on the sponsors of the bill to make clear in their statements on the House floor that the government is not allowed to engage in mass collection such as grabbing records of all phone calls in a particular area code, all Internet accounts in a particular zip code, all emails sent through a particular email service or all transactions made through a particular bank.”
 
Discussing the weakened transparency provisions in the new version of USA FREEDOM, Bankston added:
 
“The USA FREEDOM provisions intended to allow companies to issue more detailed transparency reports about the government demands they receive for users’ information have also been completely watered down. Those transparency reporting provisions have been weakened to the point that they are almost identical to what the Justice Department has already agreed to let the companies report.  Yet those bare-bones reports that the companies are already issuing, which lump a bunch of different surveillance authorities into a single rounded number, have done little to restore the lost trust of Internet users here and abroad.  Much more transparency is necessary to provide meaningful accountability and restore trust in the US Internet industry, and we intend to keep fighting for it.”
 

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