Better than nothing. Less than we deserve.


For reasons we have explained in earlier posts, Access supports the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015 and pushes for its immediate passage, while encouraging additional amendments that would strengthen the bill’s weaker provisions. We also applaud the lawmakers who worked tirelessly to make this bill happen – members like Senator Patrick Leahy, Representative John Conyers, and Representative James Sensenbrenner, who have stood on the side of privacy and civil liberties in the face of a discourse based on hyperbolic references to terror and fear.

But it’s been almost two years since the first of the Snowden revelations made headlines around the world. And after hundreds of rallies and protests and thousands of headlines, Congress has not yet passed any meaningful reform of government surveillance authorities. As the months have ticked by and the NSA has continued to collect our most personal information, Congress has defunded the government, issued several temporary administrative authorizations, and voted countless times to defund Obamacare. However, on the issue of our most basic and fundamental rights, they have failed to follow the leadership of their privacy-minded colleagues, and have not acted.

Instead, they’ve got up on their podiums and spoken. And betted against you — betted that you’d lose interest, get scared, run away. Betted that they could wait you out and that eventually you’d forget that you care.

The world has changed over the past two years. What was once a conspiracy theory has become a commonly recognized fact. Governments around the world have turned military-grade surveillance on innocent people. This is an affront to the basic human right to privacy, which is a precursor to our freedoms of expression, movement, assembly, thought, and religion. The United Nations General Assembly even unanimously adopted an “anti-spying” resolution that recognizes this right. But there are members of Congress who refuse to see these changes. Members like Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, who just last month introduced a tone-deaf bill to renew surveillance authorities through 2020 without a single reform. Or members like Speaker of the House John Boehner, who spread mistruths about the NSA’s surveillance programs and reportedly, along with other members of congressional leadership, threatened to block any stronger reform provisions.

Now that Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act is facing a “sunset” in about a month, we are presented with the new USA FREEDOM Act of 2015. The bill curbs the worst abuses of domestic bulk surveillance and offers a few other meaningful reforms. In exchange, it creates an expensive new program that allows for incredibly “bulky” collection. It does little to restructure the agencies that have abused our rights. It punishes none of the officials that lied to Congress and to the public about the very existence of these programs.

This bill is not the bill we need to reform all government surveillance. This is not the bill that the world’s people — or even the American people — deserve. It’s a grave disappointment. However, Access supports this bill for two reasons.

The primary reason we support this bill is that it improves the status quo. We are disappointed that, after two years, this is all that our champions in Congress could achieve. And yet this is the bill that is presented to us. Our options appear to be to pass this bill and improve the status quo or to oppose this bill and continue without any legal limit on bulk surveillance. If we believed that defeating this bill would lead Congress to introduce stronger legislation, we would do that. However, recent experience demonstrates the opposite is more likely.

The second reason we support this bill is that we truly believe that we will ultimately win. The politicians in Washington have bet that people around the world would give up, would lose interest, or go away. As an international organization that helps activists around the world, we know that simply isn’t the case. People care about their rights. We will continue to fight for the rights of people around the world to be free of mass surveillance, and ultimately we will win. We do not believe this is the “last best” chance for any reforms. We believe that these reforms are necessary to show that greater reforms are possible.

We hope our congressmen and women will stand on the side of the people and will vote to restrain our out-of-control surveillance agencies. We hope we can resolve these core issues and move forward with more and greater reforms in the coming months. We hope you’ll keep fighting with us.

Photo credit: Bjoertvedt