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Civil Liberties Groups Push USA Freedom

WASHINGTON — A coalition of more than 40 groups, including New America’s Open Technology Institute, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association, has asked the U.S. Senate to make it a priority to pass the latest version of the USA Freedom Act (S. 2685), without adding amendments to “weaken” it.

USA Freedom is the bill that reforms government surveillance of public communications by increasing transparency and public reporting, among other actions. It is meant to rein in the kind of bulk data collection by government agencies exposed by leaker Edward Snowden and give communications companies guidance on how to retain and share information with the government.

“S. 2685 in its current form would provide significant transparency and privacy safeguards while preserving the tools intelligence agencies need to protect national security,” the civil-liberties coalition said.

Coalition members said their consensus support would be “severely disrupted” if mandatory data-retention requirements were added.

Currently, communications companies must only retain records for the length of time they would normally keep them in the course of business.

Supporters of longer data-retention mandates argue that such a move would prevent potentially important information from slipping through the net. Coalition members said such mandates pose “significant threats.” If more data can be held for legal government searches, they argued, there is more data available for illegal ones.

The letter from the groups follows one to Leahy from Attorney General Eric Holder two weeks ago saying the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence support his version as “a reasonable compromise that enhances privacy and civil liberties and increases transparency.”

A House-passed version of the bill was not as warmly received by the ACLU, but the updated Senate version, introduced in July by Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), was welcomed as a big improvement. The NCTA says it is taking no position on either bill.

One of the big differences between the bills is that the Senate version narrows the definition of specific selection terms used for obtaining records, including prohibiting collection based on broad geographic regions or particular Internet or phone services. Another is that the Senate bill does not include a mandatory data retention regime — requiring Internet and phone companies to keep records any longer than they would in the course of normal business.

Not everyone is happy with Leahy’s new version. A group of whistleblower groups has said its language is ambiguous and open to abuse, and that it fails to protect the rights of Americans.