Tech firms and privacy groups at odds over Patriot Act reform bill

The Freedom Act is seen by many as the last chance to get a bill through Congress reining in the NSA's vast dragnet. But some privacy groups say the effort doesn't go far enough.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI, 5th), author of the Patriot Act, and the anti-surveillance bill, the Freedom Act. (Image: Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights/Flickr)

With fewer than thirty days until a key provision of the Patriot Act expires, some members of Congress are trying to kill it for good. (While some are trying to keep it alive.)

But while Silicon Valley lauds the effort, notable privacy groups are far from pleased.

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The flagship anti-surveillance bill, the Freedom Act, aims at kicking the National Security Agency's spying programs to the curb. The bill aims to end bulk domestic data collection, strengthen civil liberties, and give technology companies greater rights to transparency.

The bipartisan and bicameral bill was reintroduced last week, less than a year after it was first drafted. The original bill passed the House last year, but failed in the Senate by a narrow margin. Although it gained wide support from the technology industry in the beginning, privacy groups pulled their support after provisions were weakened.

This new legislative effort, built on the successes from last year, is widely seen as the last chance to push for meaningful reform before key provisions in the Patriot Act sunset. Lawmakers are mindful not to let the law expire, which some argue would allow the NSA to circumvent the legal void to carry on collecting data in bulk anyway.

But on a list of supporters, some of the more established privacy groups were noticeably absent.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said in a blog post the bill is a "first, small step in the right direction," but it has "serious faults that should be addressed."

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said in an emailed statement that the bill "does not go nearly far enough," adding that the country needs "wholesale reform."

Many other privacy groups were more supportive, but with caveats.

The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) said in a blog post that Congress "should pass" the bill, but admitted it was "not as comprehensive" as it would've liked.

The Open Technology Institute (OTI) was just as positive over the banning of "indiscriminate bulk collection of any type of record," but said the bill "would not enact every surveillance reform" that's needed.

Access said it supports the "immediate passage" of the bill, but warns it "still allows too much data collection." The privacy group said the passing of this bill is "necessary to advance reforms, but much, much more is needed."

Where the bill saw firm and almost unanimous unwavering support was from the Silicon Valley technology companies.

Facebook said it "supports" the bill as it stands, as did Microsoft and Yahoo in their statements. Browser maker Mozilla called the bill a "significant step" toward enhancing privacy and ending mass surveillance. But Google was more hedged in its response, saying the bill does "not address the full panoply of reforms," but added it represents a "significant down payment on broader government surveillance reform."

All eyes are on the bills in both congressional chambers this coming week. A vote is expected on the House bill as early as mid-May, leaving very little wiggle room for failure.

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