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ARL Disappointed by Version of USA FREEDOM Act Passed by US House of Representatives

telephone with sticker that says "this phone is tapped"
image © François Proulx

Today, May 22, 2014, the US House of Representatives voted 303 to 121 to pass H.R. 3361, the USA FREEDOM Act, after amending the bill twice in committees. The original version of the bill, which currently remains unaltered in the Senate, had 151 House co-sponsors. Some of these co-sponsors withdrew their support and opposed the version of H.R. 3361 reported out of the House Rules Committee on May 21 because of the significant changes made. Even several of those co-sponsors who voted in favor of H.R. 3361 expressed disappointment that the bill did not go far enough in curtailing the Government’s ability to conduct bulk collection of records and failed to protect privacy and civil liberties in the same manner as the prior versions.

ARL supported the version (PDF) of the USA FREEDOM Act originally introduced in the House and Senate in October 2013, as well as the version altered by the Manager’s Amendment (PDF), which was unanimously passed by the House Judiciary Committee and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on May 15, 2014. After unanimous passage through these two committees, the bill was again altered when reported out of the House Rules Committee. The version passed on the House Floor today represents a significantly watered down version of the USA FREEDOM Act.

ARL, like many civil liberties and privacy groups that previously expressed public support of the bill, has withdrawn its support for the weakened version of H.R. 3361. Although the version of the bill passed by the House today does represent a step toward reform, ARL is disappointed by the changes made at the eleventh hour that remove clarity and weaken protections afforded by earlier versions of the bill.

The prior versions of the USA FREEDOM Act would have ended bulk collection of records under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, also known as the “business records” or “library records” provision. The version passed unanimously through the Judiciary and Permanent Select Committees would have ended bulk collection by requiring that records requested and obtained by intelligence authorities be limited to a “specific selection term,” defined as “a term used to uniquely describe a person, entity, or account.” The version that went to the House Floor, however, potentially expands the scope of a specific selection term by ambiguously defining “specific selection term” as “a discrete term…used by the Government to limit the scope of information or tangible things sought.” ARL is concerned that this broad definition does not go far enough in limiting the collection of records, and the ambiguity could result in intelligence authorities overreaching and conducting large-scale collections once again.

Although ARL is disappointed by the version of the USA FREEDOM Act passed by the House today, the Association remains hopeful that the Senate will continue to work from the original version and ensure meaningful reform, including strong privacy protections for communications and records of US persons.

This article originally appeared on the ARL Policy Notes blog on May 22, 2014.

The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) is a nonprofit organization of 125 research libraries in the US and Canada. ARL’s mission is to influence the changing environment of scholarly communication and the public policies that affect research libraries and the diverse communities they serve. ARL pursues this mission by advancing the goals of its member research libraries, providing leadership in public and information policy to the scholarly and higher education communities, fostering the exchange of ideas and expertise, facilitating the emergence of new roles for research libraries, and shaping a future environment that leverages its interests with those of allied organizations. ARL is on the web at http://www.arl.org/.

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