The Bill Formerly Known as the USA FREEDOM Act

(Editor’s Note: The following is a guest blog post from Amie Stepanovich, senior policy council at Access)

Today, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a watered down version of the USA FREEDOM Act. How watered down? The revised version of the bill washed away half of its co-sponsors.

The USA FREEDOM bill was introduced last year to reform NSA surveillance activities. Access had endorsed the bill when it was introduced, but it has gone through substantial changes in the last week and the current version of the bill falls short of advancing meaningful protections for U.S. and international Internet users.

In today’s floor debate, Representative Lofgren, one of the co-sponsors of the Bill, voiced her dissent with the current text. Rep. Lofgren noted the bill may still allow bulk collection in some instances due to ambiguity, and further argued that its transparency provisions were substantially weakened. She explained that both digital rights groups and corporations have withdrawn support for the gutted proposal. Representative Sensenbrenner, the bill’s primary sponsor, expressed disappointment in the actions taken to water down the bill, but said that it would be a first step toward NSA reform.

House leaders and the Obama administration met earlier this week to further modify the bill, which was already weakened prior to its passage out of the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees two weeks ago. It’s greatly disappointing to witness House leaders succumb to the pressure applied by the Obama administration and others, turning its back on the compromised version of USA FREEDOM that so many initially supported.

The last minute changes weaken NSA reform 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
  • Watering down transparency reporting permissions for communications companies and services

As the bill prepares to move to the Senate for further consideration, Access will continue to fight for meaningful reform of NSA practices that are not transparent, not accountable, and not in line with human rights standards.

(Amie Stepanovich is Senior Policy Counsel at Access. She is an expert in domestic surveillance, cybersecurity, and privacy law. At Access, Amie leads projects on digital due process and responds to threats at the intersection of human rights and communications surveillance).