USA FREEDOM Act: The reform we need, to get to the reforms we deserve

USA Freedom Act

(This post is part 1 in a series of posts on the USA FREEDOM Act. See part 2 and part 3.)

Yesterday, the USA FREEDOM Act, H.R. 2048, was introduced to reform some U.S. surveillance powers, increase transparency, and improve accountability. It’s been nearly two years since government surveillance began making headlines, starting the steady storm of revelations made possible by Edward Snowden. It is long past time that we reform these overbroad surveillance authorities and end government abuses of these powers.

To that end, Access supports the immediate passage of the USA FREEDOM Act. However, we urge Congress to use the amendments process wisely in order to address serious inadequacies in its key provisions, without diluting any of its reforms or protections.

It is important to be clear about what this bill does and doesn’t do. We believe that passing this bill is necessary to advance reforms, but much, much more is needed.

Specifically, we support the new limitations to bulk data collection, increased oversight at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and additional transparency on the use of surveillance powers. While the bill keeps a sunset provision, which would allow these provisions to be debated again, it fails to reconcile the sunset with the expiration date of other surveillance laws. To have done so would have allowed, for the first time, a broad, meaningful conversation on the full scope of the surveillance authorities.

However, we believe the legislation still allows too much data collection, having removed key provisions from earlier versions of the bill. These include key transparency requirements and so-called “super-minimization” provisions, which would have strictly limited the retention of data. The bill also contains a loophole for unaccountable surveillance in the emergency provisions, doesn’t sufficiently limit liability for companies that share data with the government, and creates a new authority to surveil individuals domestically under certain circumstances.

Since 2013, there have been several iterations of the USA FREEDOM Act, which was named in reference to the USA PATRIOT Act, the law that granted greatly expanded surveillance authorities in the wake of 9/11. Some of the provisions in earlier versions of the USA FREEDOM Act may have been preferable to the ones in the current version. But those bills, unfortunately, did not advance.

We believe that it’s important to act now, and once the USA FREEDOM Act has passed, to enact even more profound and far-reaching reforms to the law. If we do not seize this opportunity to act, for whatever reason, we risk losing a vital opportunity to take a step — if only a step — toward stopping the surveillance machine.

In posts to follow, we will explore in detail what the USA FREEDOM Act proposes, good and bad. Then we will describe what we envision as the next steps for meaningful reform. Finally, we will call on our lawmakers to take action to better protect their constituents and users around the world. Stay tuned.