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Senate USA Freedom Act Gets Good Reviews

The Senate's new version of the USA Freedom Act of 2014 was getting a round of applause from stakeholders Tuesday following its introduction. "By establishing a panel of advocates to argue before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and requiring it to issue statements about its decisions, the Senate bill strengthens our privacy rights and civil liberties," said Microsoft general counsel and executive VP Brad Smith.

"We're also pleased that the bill bans the bulk collection of data and allows companies to be more transparent about requests we receive from the government."

“Senator Leahy has taken the important step of crafting a bill that corrects many mistakes in the weakened House measure," said Free Press Action Fund policy director Matt Wood. "We urge other senators to support this version of the USA Freedom Act if it comes to the floor as promised....Intelligence agencies, the White House and their allies on Capitol Hill watered down the House bill to the point that it would have done nothing to stop unchecked surveillance. The Senate version apparently restores much accountability and transparency while reining in government abuses."

The Computer & Communications Industry Association agrees the House bill was weak and says the Senate bill would make metadata collection more effective and improve the "checks and balances." The legislation is looking to check data-collection overreach, while balancing that with the need to collect data to protect national security.

"The Senate bill is a vast improvement over the final House bill, which was unfortunately watered down. The Senate USA Freedom Act narrows key loopholes on bulk data collection and offers greater transparency, which is essential for citizens in a free democracy," said CCIA president Ed Black. "We appreciate the Senate and its staff for listening to those concerned about civil liberties and to the tech industry to make thoughtful improvements so that the bill would address the reforms lawmakers and the public have been demanding."

The Open Technology Institute said the Senate version reflects many of their suggested changes, pointing out that it:

• "Strengthens and clarifies the ban on 'bulk' collection of records, including by tightening definitions to ensure that the government can’t collect records for everyone in a particular geographic area or using a particular communication service, and by adding new post-collection minimization procedures;

• "Allows much more detailed transparency reporting by companies—and requires much more detailed transparency reporting by the government—about the NSA’s surveillance activities; and

• "Provides stronger reforms to the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s processes, by creating new Special Advocates whose duty is to advocate to the court in favor of privacy and civil liberties, and by strengthening requirements that the government release redacted copies or summaries of the court’s significant decisions."

“This new, stronger version of the USA FREEDOM Act would go a long way toward stemming the costs of the NSA’s spying programs and restoring trust in the American Internet industry, by prohibiting bulk records collection and providing substantially more transparency around the NSA’s surveillance programs,” said OTI policy director Kevin Bankston.

“It’s vital for Congress to pass meaningful surveillance reform in order to restore the public's trust in the technology sector and the U.S. government," said the Information Technology Industry Council. "Today’s introduction of the USA FREEDOM Act by Sen. Leahy is an important part of moving this process forward. This bill improves bipartisan legislation already passed by the House of Representatives by effectively putting an end to bulk collection and enabling companies to be more transparent about the orders they receive."

"We urge Congress to act in a bipartisan fashion and swiftly pass the USA FREEDOM Act. Without it, the open and borderless Internet that our innovation economy depends on will be at risk and the tech sector will continue to feel significant economic impacts that directly translate into lost American jobs.”

The ACLU says the bill still isn't quite right, but it's getting there.

“We commend the Senate Democratic and Republican co-sponsors of this version of the USA Freedom Act, which significantly constrains the out-of-control surveillance authorities exposed by Edward Snowden," said Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. "While this bill is not perfect, it is the beginning of the real NSA reform that the public has been craving since the Patriot Act became law in 2001. The Senate bill is an improvement over the version passed by the House, but problems remain. It is important that the public understand that there is much more work to be done to narrow the government’s overbroad surveillance authorities to bring them in line with our Constitution and values. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and we have miles left to go.”

Alex Fowler, global privacy and public policy lead for Mozilla, agreed the race is not over.

"We're pleased to see the Senate propose limits on mass surveillance but more reform is needed to repair the damage inflicted on Internet users and the Web economy," he said. "We hope the Senate will hold firm to the bill's language and forgo loopholes that would further undermine trust, such as allowing bulk collection through broad 'selector terms' that sidestep the problem."

Ditto Kevin Bankston of the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute.

"[E]nsuring that a strong version of USA FREEDOM becomes law is only the first step toward repairing the damage that the NSA has done to America’s tech economy, its foreign relationships, and the security of the Internet itself," he said. "We desperately need more comprehensive reforms to address the mass Internet surveillance being done inside the United States under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act and outside of the country under the President’s authority. Congress also needs to protect the security and popularity of U.S. tech products and services by prohibiting the NSA from weakening them with surveillance 'back doors,' a prohibition that the House of Representatives supported by a vote of nearly three to one just last month."

Leahy himself acknowledged that while the bill, if it passed, would be a historic step there were still more steps necessary.