Senate blocks USA Freedom Act reform to NSA spying

US senators have rejected the USA Freedom Act that would have curbed the NSA's mass internet surveillance

Despite intensive lobbying by technology firms and civil liberties groups, US senators have rejected the USA Freedom Act that would have curbed US security agencies' mass internet surveillance.

Support for the legislation was led by the Reform Government Surveillance alliance of top technology firms and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

Those seeking the first reforms of the US National Security Agency’s spying powers in almost 30 years were keen to get the legislation passed before the Republican Party takes control of Congress in 2015.

But a group of mainly Republican senators blocked the USA Freedom Act, which passed through the House of Representatives in May 2014 with bipartisan support.

The legislation – which also sought to end the NSA’s collection of US phone data – failed by just two votes to reach the 60-vote threshold required to move forward to a final vote later in the week.

Those who voted against the USA Freedom Act warned against leaving the US exposed to terrorist attack, reported the Guardian.

Senator Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who sponsored the bill in the Senate, denounced the “scare tactics” he said killed the bill.

EFF condemns Senate move

Although digital civil liberties group EFF acknowledged the USA Freedom Act did not go far enough towards ending mass surveillance, the group denounced the setback.

“We are disappointed that the Senate failed to advance the USA Freedom Act, a good start for bipartisan surveillance reform that should have passed the Senate,” the EFF said.

However, the group pointed out that the Senate still has the remainder of the current legislative session to pass the USA Freedom Act.

“We continue to urge the Senate to do so and only support amendments that will make it stronger. We strongly oppose any amendment that would water down the strong privacy, special advocate and transparency provisions of the bill,” the EFF said.

But the EFF considers the USA Freedom Act only the first step in comprehensive surveillance reform.

“Future reform must include significant changes to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act, to the operations of Executive Order 12333, and to the broken classification system that the executive branch counts on to hide unconstitutional surveillance from the public,” the EFF said.

BSA urges surveillance reform

BSA, The Software Alliance also expressed disappointment following the US Senate’s failure to advance the USA Freedom Act.

“This was a missed opportunity to advance critical legislation that has received widespread, bipartisan support,” said Victoria Espinel, BSA president and chief executive.

“We must take steps to re-affirm essential privacy protections and restore trust in our national security efforts.”

The BSA called on the US Senate to work together to pass surveillance reform.

Technology firms lobby for change

Ahead of the vote, the Reform Government Surveillance alliance of top technology firms called on US senators to give the legislation the green light.

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.

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 would have enhanced this agreement by allowing companies greater freedom to disclose the number and types of government data requests received.

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