Access to Senate: We Need a Better Bill

Today, the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015 was approved by the House of Representatives by a vote of 338-88. Introduced in April, the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015 is the latest attempt to substantively reform these provisions before Section 215 sunsets on June 1, 2015. The House vote comes in the wake of last week’s Second Circuit court decision holding the bulk telephony collection program unlawful under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, one of the authorities reformed by the new bill.

We welcome the House’s passage of the bill. However, we strongly encourage the members of the U.S. Senate to condition their votes on the four key improvements to the bill outlined below, while strongly opposing any reauthorizations – whether for one week or five years – without reform.

Several amendments had been proposed in the House Judiciary Committee, and again prior to its presentation on the House floor, though none were adopted. While we applaud the votes to prevent insertion of a data retention provision, we are disappointed that other provisions that could have better protected privacy and civil liberties were similarly struck down.

The bill will now move to the Senate, where some are proposing “clean reauthorizations” of Section 215 — renewals of surveillance authorities without any reforms — in order to water down the bill’s protections or avoid changes to the authorities. These proposals are tone deaf and unacceptable. The public has voiced strong support for reform, and Congress has been considering some version of the USA FREEDOM Act for nearly 18 months. At this point, if the Senate is unable to pass an improved bill before the impending deadline, it will be abdicating its responsibilities to the country.

In fact, the Second Circuit decision has changed the environment in which Congress considers this bill and other reform proposals. As we have explained, the decision is “the most significant judicial statement to date on the overbreadth of current U.S. surveillance practices.” By calling into question the impact of a reauthorization, the Court’s decision reminds us of the importance of protecting privacy and enforcing checks on surveillance while providing leverage to achieve stronger reform than previously possible. Congress must now take bolder action in passing surveillance reform.

The Senate must act quickly to increase the protections in the USA FREEDOM Act ahead of the deadline. There are several amendments that could improve the bill, many of which would reinstate certain provisions from previous iterations that received broad support from the full political spectrum, as well as from government, civil society, and the corporate sector. Four amendments we would like to see adopted ahead of the deadline include:

  • re-inserting so-called “super minimization” procedures that place retention limits on information collected that is not related to a specific individual, account, or personal device;
  • narrowing liability protection to attach only to companies that act in good faith;
  • increasing court oversight by providing a strong mandate for the appointed court amicus curiae and requiring approval of privacy procedures; and
  • restricting the definition of “Specific Selection Term” by adding requirements that narrowly limit collection.

Access supports reforms that extend and defend the rights of users at risk. On the long road to reform government surveillance practices around the world, we will continue to fight for the rights of all users, both in the U.S., including in debates over the FISA Amendments Act and Executive Order 12333, as well as in other countries.

We can start down that road right now. But we have a responsibility to fight for the best reforms possible. While we have consistently argued that the USA FREEDOM Act could be better, now it must get better. We urge the Senate to take up the USA FREEDOM Act immediately and support changes to improve its protections of users.