Top technology firms lobby Senate for curbs on NSA surveillance

Technology firms join calls from civil liberties groups to the US Senate to pass the USA Freedom Act to curb NSA surveillance

An alliance of top technology firms has joined calls from civil liberties groups to lobby the US Senate to vote in favour of passing the USA Freedom Act.

Senators are expected to vote to consider the proposed legislation on 18 November 2014, and then again later in the week on whether to pass the legislation to curb internet surveillance and bulk email collection.

The USA Freedom Act was passed through the House of Representatives in May 2014 with bipartisan support.

If passed by Senate, the Freedom Act will be the first law to limit the US National Security Agency’s spying powers in almost 30 years.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has called on US citizens to call their Senators and urge them to pass the strongest bill possible, and non-US citizens to sign the EFF’s petition against mass surveillance.

“We expect NSA apologists to try to weaken the bill with last-minute amendments. That’s why we need people who care about privacy to call their senators and demand real reform,” the EFF said in a statement.

Reining in mass surveillance

The EFF said the USA Freedom Act will rein in the NSA's collection of millions of Americans' telephone records, by amending one of the more excessive provisions of the Patriot Act, Section 215.

The legislation will create a special advocate, to be appointed by the secret surveillance court, to argue for civil liberties and privacy in proceedings that raise novel or significant legal issues.

The USA Freedom Act will also provide reporting requirements about surveillance, so the NSA is forced to report how many people it has under surveillance.

Despite calls for support of the USA Freedom Act, the EFF concedes the legislation does not reform surveillance as much as the group would like.

“Real reform means ending mass internet surveillance of people in the US and abroad. It also means overhauling the broken classification system, which has hidden from public oversight the government surveillance practices that affect us all,” said Rainey Reitman, EFF activism director.

“The USA Freedom Act isn’t a solution to all these problems, but it is a strong step on the path to reform. It will put in place measures that can help rein in NSA spying today and prove to Congress there is a powerful movement of people working to end mass surveillance,” she said.

Coalition of technology companies

The Reform Government Surveillance alliance of top technology firms is backing the USA Freedom Act and lobbying US senators to give the legislation the green light this week.

Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, AOL, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Evernote and Dropbox formed the alliance in December 2013 to call for urgent reform of all internet surveillance programmes such as Prism in the US, and Tempora in the UK.

“The Senate has an opportunity this week to vote on the bipartisan USA Freedom Act,” the alliance said in an open letter to the Senate.

“We urge you to pass the bill, which both protects national security and reaffirms America’s commitment to the freedoms we all cherish.”

Members of the alliance have sought to distance themselves from the NSA’s surveillance programmes and have been pushing for the right to disclose more information about government data requests.

Pushback from technology companies, including Microsoft and Facebook, saw a limited transparency deal struck with the US Justice Department in January 2014.

The USA Freedom Act will enhance this agreement by allowing companies greater freedom to disclose the number and types of government data requests received.

Many companies have lost business, or face laws designed to restrict data flows, due to foreign governments’ fear that the US government can reach company-managed data at will

 Gary Shapiro, Consumer Electronics Association 

Deadline to stop harming business

Lobbyists are keen to ensure the USA Freedom Act is passed through the Senate before the end of 2014, reports the Guardian.

If the USA Freedom Act fails to pass by the end of 2014, the process will have to restart in January 2015, and will be scrutinised by a new Congress under the control of the Republican Party, which is reportedly more favourable to government surveillance.

The USA Freedom Act has garnered support from the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA).

“American technology companies have been hurt by reaction to the revelation of the US government’s bulk data collection,” the association’s chief executive Gary Shapiro wrote in an open letter.

“Many companies have lost business, or face laws designed to restrict data flows, due to foreign governments’ fear that the US government can reach company-managed data at will,” he said.

According to Shapiro, several companies have lost contracts with foreign governments worth millions of dollars and several governments may now limit the free flow of data across borders.

Damage to civil liberties and the internet

This would damage the utility and functionality of the internet, he wrote.

Like the EFF, the Reform Government Surveillance alliance has called for reform beyond the USA Freedom Act.

The alliance described the USA Freedom Act is a step in the right direction, but said it will “continue to work with Congress, the Administration, civil liberties groups and governments around the world to advance essential reforms that we set forth in a set of principles last year.

“Such reforms include: Preventing government access to data without proper legal process; assuring providers they are not required to locate infrastructure within a country’s border; promoting the free flow of data across borders; and avoiding conflicts among nations through robust, principled, and transparent frameworks that govern lawful requests for data across jurisdictions.”

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