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USA Freedom Act Stalls In Senate

Senate Saturday  failed to pass either the USA Freedom Act ( a short-term renewal of Sec. 215 bulk data collection authority under the PATRIOT Act, which expires June 1.

USA Freedom is a bipartisan House-passed bill that would end indiscriminate bulk metada collection by the NSA, which was brought to light through leaks by NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The bill would not end bulk collection, but would have narrowed it and provided for more transparency.

The alternative was a straight, two-month extension of the PATRIOIT Act authorities while Congress continued to debate the issue, but that failed as well.

The Senate has exited for the Memorial Day break, but is scheduled to return early (on Sunday, May 31) to deal with the USA Freedom Act and perhaps get an up or down vote.

The Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), which represents computer and tech companies including Google, Microsoft, Apple and Panasonic, was not pleased with Congress' inaction.

“We are incredibly disappointed in the Senate’s failure to pass the USA Freedom Act," said ITI President Dean Garfield. "This morning’s (May 23) vote was a missed opportunity to bring certainty and clarity to our nation’s surveillance laws.  We have said from the beginning that Congressional action is needed to restore trust here at home and globally in our government and the technology sector.  The USA Freedom Act would have effectively ended indiscriminate bulk collection of data and bring much needed transparency to the process by allowing tech companies to report information about the government orders they receive for access to data. 

“Unfortunately, now, the path forward is shaky and uncertain. We call on Congress to remain committed to finish the necessary steps to ensure that surveillance authorities appropriately protect peoples’ privacy and civil liberties while enabling a lawful and legitimate access to data by the government.”

Kevin Bankston, policy director of New America’s Open Technology Institute, called it a "shocking insult to the democratic process, and to the American people who have been demanding reform for two years, that the Senate’s leaders have ignored the White House, federal judges, and an overwhelming majority of the House of Representatives by blocking the USA Freedom Act."

Privacy advocates who argued USA Freedom provided insufficient protections and who also opposed the short-term PATRIOT Act reauthorization, or any reauthorization for that matter, were celebrating the bills' failure.

“These bills were an attempt to disregard the abuses revealed by Snowden and cement mass surveillance into law in defiance of the Constitution, the courts, and public sentiment,” said Jeff Lyon, CTO of Fight for the Future, in a statement, “The failure of these bills to pass shows just how dramatically the politics of surveillance changed once the extent of the government’s surveillance programs became known to the public.”

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.