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Surveillance-limiting USA Freedom Act fails to clear Senate

The U.S. Senate has blocked the USA Freedom Bill by giving it two votes fewer than it needed to pass. The bill would have ended the bulk collection of phone records and internet metadata within the U.S., so that’s a real shame – such collection amounts to a form of mass surveillance.

On the other hand, it would also have extended Section 215 and certain other provisions of the Patriot Act, the post-9/11 legislation that underpins much of both domestic and foreign surveillance, beyond their June 1, 2015 expiry date. These provisions lets U.S. authorities demand that carriers and companies such as Facebook and Twitter hand over their business records in secret, obtain surveillance orders that don’t identify the target, and secretly spy on foreigners within U.S. borders. So that’s less of a shame – by the analysis of some, including Jim Sensenbrenner, the USA Freedom Act’s co-author, it’s unlikely that Congress will renew these provisions without significant changes.

Whereas authorities in countries such as the U.K. openly collect everyone’s communications records in order to keep an eye on citizens – and dig up journalists’ sources — the deployment of such practices in the U.S. remained pretty secretive until the first NSA revelations in June 2013 via whistleblower Edward Snowden. The first version of the USA Freedom Act was introduced in October of that year, after Snowden’s cache revealed many more secrets about surveillance of Americans and foreigners.

As my colleague Jeff Roberts noted a couple of weeks back, the victory of the Republicans in the 2014 mid-term elections suggested that the USA Freedom Act (a fresh attempt, after the first version got heavily watered down) might founder, particularly as one of its Senate champions, Mark Udall (D-Co.), lost his seat.

It seems a last-minute plea by tech heavyweights, such as [company]Microsoft[/company], [company]Apple[/company], [company]Google[/company] and [company]Facebook[/company], didn’t work — bear in mind that these companies are all experiencing widespread (and well-founded) foreign mistrust. The endorsement of President Barack Obama also failed to help.

Bill co-author Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said in a Tuesday statement that Senate Republicans had “reverted to scare tactics rather than to working productively to protect Americans’ basic privacy rights and our national security.” Leahy also pointed out that, while the vote failed, “it was the Senate’s strongest showing of support for a major reform in recent years.”

“I am disappointed by tonight’s vote, but I am not new to this fight,” he said. “Over the past decade, I have consistently opposed extending USA Patriot Act and FISA Amendments Act sunsets without including meaningful reforms. I have fought the status quo every step of the way in these efforts, but the broad coalition we have built in favor of the USA Freedom Act shows that we are gaining ground.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which had given Leahy’s bill somewhat tentative support, also said it was disappointed that the Senate had blocked the USA Freedom Act, which would have been “a good start for bipartisan surveillance reform.”

The EFF noted that the Senate could still pass the Act in the remainder of the current legislative session, and argued that “future reform must include significant changes to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act, to the operations of Executive Order 12333, and to the broken classification system that the executive branch counts on to hide unconstitutional surveillance from the public.”

Though people tend to downplay the role of international law, I think it’s worth pointing out that successive United Nations reports have slammed the bulk collection of communications records and other metadata as unacceptable mass surveillance that stands contrary to established privacy rights. A draft UN resolution introduced earlier this month by Germany and Brazil would make this clear. It would also be nice if U.S. legislation recognized that foreigners also have a right to privacy, as international law forbids such discrimination in the application of human rights.

12 Responses to “Surveillance-limiting USA Freedom Act fails to clear Senate”

  1. The composition of the Senate hasn’t changed yet. Everyone who was a Senator this summer is still a Senator today, and those are the ones who voted on this bill. The 2014 midterm winners don’t take their seats until January 2015.

    This article is one sided, like many on Gigaom that deal with political issues. How about including some quotes from Senators who opposed this bill? Why did they vote the way they did? They must have had their reasons. I don’t know enough about this bill to have an opinion on it. This article, by not presenting both sides, doesn’t educate me. It just gives the author a chance to give us his opinion.

  2. How about a link to the actual bill? Also I’m not sure how the midterm election could have affected this vote as none of them have been seated yet. Would be nice to see a link to the actual vote on the bill you are writing about as well as the standard R/D split in votes for it- though this issue may not split cleanly on party lines as the Dem controlled senate chose not to pass now and you are speculating the the future Rep controlled senate will similarly decline. You are reporting on politics here so presumably there were statements issued by senators on both sides (for and against) which you can link to better educate us as well.

  3. Well, what a surprise. The senate is controlled by the democrats right now. I guess the democrats aren’t as much for the “FOLKS” as Obama claims. Is it possible democrat’s attacks on the rich by such poor democratic politicians like Pelosi, and Reid could be just be a ploy to mislead us “stupid Americans” that fell for ObamaCare ?

    • You Republicans are incredible acrobats in doublethink.

      “Senators, mostly Republicans warning of leaving the country exposed to another terrorist attack, voted to beat back the bill, which had been warily backed by the Obama administration, technology giants and most civil libertarian groups.”
      http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2014/nov/18/usa-freedom-act-republicans-block-bill

      Using the Republican subversion of the Constitution’s requirement the Senate pass bills by only 50%+1, the Republican filibuster stopped the bill from coming to a vote even though 52 Democrats (the majority of the Senate, all but one Democrat), four Republicans and two independents voted for voting on it, while 41 Republicans and one Democrat voted to stop it before voting on it. 58% not enough in your Orwellian Republican minority Senate:
      http://politics.nytimes.com/congress/votes/113/senate/2/282

      And out here in the public, Republicans like you blame the Democrats for killing it. You think Orwell’s _1984_ was an instruction manual, not a warning.

  4. chucky taylor

    we should be telling them respect our rights or they will go to prison no if and our buts lets not take this, anyone who go’s against the american public elected officials, law enforcement, courts they have been bought the media too they should get life in prison for being traitors.