The House of Representatives on Thursday passed a bill to end bulk collection of Americans' phone records by the National Security Agency, despite objections from leading Silicon Valley companies and privacy advocates who said last-minute changes could still enable widespread collection of Internet users' data.
Critics said the bill's intended reforms were "severely weakened" by amendments negotiated in private by the Obama administration and the House Republican majority. A coalition of major Internet companies that includes Facebook, Google and Apple pulled their support earlier this week, saying the changes created "an unacceptable loophole" that moved the bill "in the wrong direction."
Backers described the measure as a significant step forward and perhaps the best chance for Congress to restrict NSA abuses that were revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden and news reports over the past year. Critics vowed to work for stronger reforms in the Senate, although the White House and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who chairs the Senate intelligence committee, have both reportedly endorsed the outlines of the House bill.
The bill known as the USA Freedom Act, which passed on a bipartisan vote of 303 to 121, is "a workable compromise that protects the core function of a counter-terrorism program we know has saved lives around the world," Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., who chairs the House intelligence committee, told The Associated Press.
As it stands, the legislation follows through on President Barack Obama's proposal for ending the NSA's practice of collecting telephone calling records of virtually every American. It would shift that role to telephone companies, while requiring them to provide records to the NSA in response to a court order.
But critics denounced amendments sought by the Obama administration. Although one key change was seemingly technical, involving the addition of a few words, tech industry and civil liberties advocates said it made a tremendous difference.
"The ban on bulk collection was deliberately watered down to be ambiguous and exploitable," said Harley Geiger, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based group that advocates for Internet freedom.
Specifically, one change added wording to a section that was intended to limit the kinds of data the NSA can obtain. It adds the phrase "such as," which critics view as open-ended and potentially allowing types of data that aren't specifically listed. It also uses the words "address" and "device" without defining them, which critics said could allow the agency to obtain data from broad geographic regions or categories of computers, such as smartphones.
"Congress has been clear that it wishes to end bulk collections, but given the government's history of twisted legal interpretations, this language can't be relied on to protect our freedoms," said the Electronic Frontier Foundation, another advocacy group. It said the changes "severely weaken the bill."
Tech companies used language that was only slightly more measured.
"We're pretty disappointed in the USA Freedom Act," said Elliot Schrage, vice president for communications and public policy at Facebook, in response to a stockholder's question during the company's annual meeting Thursday. "It's been really frustrating for us."
The amendments "would expand the scope of permissible government intrusion," Schrage said. While Facebook understands the need to protect national security, he said, "We think the dial has been turned much too far" toward security and away from Internet privacy.
Google, Yahoo and Apple had no comment Thursday. But their coalition withdrew its support for the bill Wednesday, saying in a statement that "the legislation has moved in the wrong direction. The latest draft opens up an unacceptable loophole that could enable the bulk collection of Internet users' data."
Critics also objected that an earlier change dropped the idea of an independent "public advocate" to review and potentially oppose NSA requests at the government's secret intelligence court. In addition, the EFF complained the bill didn't allow Internet companies to report on the exact number of demands for information they receive from U.S. authorities.
Instead, the bill codifies a deal the Justice Department negotiated with tech companies earlier this year, which allows them to report on information demands that used to be kept secret but requires them to characterize the numbers in a broad range instead of exact figures.
Silicon Valley's congressional representatives, including Democrats Zoe Lofgren, Mike Honda, Jackie Speier and Anna Eshoo, all voted against the bill. But its chief sponsor, GOP Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, urged House members to vote yes while conceding he wished it did more.
"Those who say this bill will legalize bulk collection are wrong," added Maryland Rep. C. A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, according to The Associated Press. "They are trying to scare you by making you think there are monsters under the bed."
House members from the Bay Area were divided in Thursday's vote on the USA Freedom Act:
Voting to approve: Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael; Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton; Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco; Mike Thompson, D-Napa.
Voting against: Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto; Sam Farr, D-Santa Cruz; Mike Honda, D-San Jose; Barbara Lee, D-Oakland; Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose; George Miller, D-Martinez; Eric Swalwell, D-Dublin; Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo.
Source: U.S. House of Representatives