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Senate Recesses Without Passing USA Freedom Act

After contentious debate in an unusual Sunday session, the Senate recessed Sunday (May 31) without a vote on the USA Freedom Act, which means the Patriot Act bulk data collection program under Sec. 215 will expire at midnight (May 31).

But it looks like some version of the bill, which would limit the kind of bulk phone record data collection exposed by NSA leaker Edward Snowden, will eventually pass.

The Senate plans to take up amendments to the bill starting Monday afternoon after voting 77 to 17 to invoke cloture (end debate) and take up the bill. Among those 17 no votes was Senate Commerce Committee chairman John Thune (R-S.D.).

The USA Freedom Act limits bulk collection by refining the allowable search terms, leaves the data in the hands of telecom companies, rather than shipping it off to government servers, and would create liability protections for the phone companies that provide the information, among other things.

One thing it doesn't do is mandate how long the phone companies have to retain the information. Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), who opposed the bill, said that lack of a retention mandate could render the program useless if the companies decided not to retain the data.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) led the opposition to the bill, which he conceded would eventually likely pass. He pointed out that a federal appeals court had found bulk data collection a violation of the law, and that the President's own privacy review board had found little to recommend bulk collection.

Paul said he was concerned that the USA Freedom Act would simply be trading one kind of bulk collection for another. He said the debate was about the freedom to be left alone.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), joined Paul in slamming bulk collection, but supported the bill as an improvement over allowing the Patriot Act bulk collection to get a short-term renewal, which would renew the indiscriminate data collection program.

Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who had pushed a short-term renewal of the Patriot Act data collection authorities as they are, said the country should not be unilaterally disarming based on demagoguery.

He said there had been no example of the NSA abusing the program. But he conceded that the Congress had left itself with only two options, to let the authorities expire, which he said would not happen (at least not long term, because it is in the short term).

He said that left the USA Freedom Act, which the House has already passed. He said that was not ideal, but with some amending, which he signaled at the end of Sunday night's session, was the "only realistic way forward."

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.