The House passed the USA FREEDOM bill on Thursday morning by a vote of 303 to 121. The measure was designed to put a check on government surveillance efforts. Except there's just one thing: many of the legislators and groups who support NSA reform efforts backed away from the proposal after it was stripped of most of its meatiest bits just before today's vote.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner's original bill attracted widespread support — from the tech industry, from Tea Party groups like FreedomWorks, and, often with some caveats, from privacy reform advocacy organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation. But the tone turned from optimism to despair earlier this week after House leadership amended the measure in a few critical ways. Digital rights group Access explained what those changes were in a Tuesday statement rescinding their support for the measure. The amended bill, they wrote, undermines the House's attempt to reform NSA practices by:
- introducing ambiguity into the definition of the term “specific selection term,” which was key to the bill’s proposal to end bulk collection
- removing a provision banning reverse targeting of communications of U.S. persons
- giving the intelligence community more internal control over declassification review
- appearing to condone the NSA’s practice of reviewing the content of international communications about targeted individuals, and
- watering down transparency reporting permissions for communications companies and services
That first one, the redefinition of "specific selection term," is especially concerning for advocates. That term basically defines who and what the NSA can spy on. How specifically that term is defined is essential to limiting that power. As the EFF wrote, "the new definition is incredibly more expansive than previous definitions," and includes non-limiting language like "such as," which could give the NSA and the court that regulates it totally legal ways to talk around the intent of the measure.
The amended version gained the support of the White House, but lost a lot of its earlier backers. Those include the more libertarian Republican Rep. Justin Amash, who basically made a name for himself this year as a privacy advocate in Congress. Originally a co-sponsor to the measure, Amash said in a Thursday statement that "the revised bill that makes its way to the House floor this morning doesn't look much like the Freedom Act." He voted against it.
Likewise, as The Hill reported, many tech companies who originally supported the measure walked back their support after the result of legislative negotiations became clear. The Reform Government Surveillance coalition of tech companies released a Wednesday statement:
The latest draft opens up an unacceptable loophole that could enable the bulk collection of Internet users’ data. While it makes important progress, we cannot support this bill as currently drafted and urge Congress to close this loophole to ensure meaningful reform.”
The coalition is comprised of several major companies, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Twitter, LinkedIn, AOL, and Dropbox.
Now, the bill moves to the Senate, which has the option of passing the original version of the proposal and sending it back to the House. But it's unclear whether senators will do so or not.