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Unlikely Allies Unite Against Mass Surveillance

On Wednesday, the Free Press Action Fund, the ACLU, and the Committee to Protect Journalists joined forces with libertarian think tanks like the Competitive Enterprise Institute and R Street to call for an end to unchecked government surveillance. (Photo: Electronic Frontier Foundation/flickr/cc)

It’s not every day that you find the Free Press Action Fund, the ACLU, and the Committee to Protect Journalists joining forces with libertarian think tanks like the Competitive Enterprise Institute and R Street.

But those are exactly the kinds of strange bedfellows that united Wednesday to send a letter to the president, attorney general, leaders in Congress, the director of national intelligence, and the director of the NSA.

What could possibly bring such a curious coalition back together?

The dire need to end the unchecked government surveillance practices that whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed nearly two years ago.

The letter also garnered the signatures of major companies like Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter as well as nonprofit Internet heavyweights like Mozilla and the Wikimedia Foundation. It turns out that mass spying isn’t just a violation of our constitutional rights; it’s also bad for business. While the Free Press Action Fund’s primary goal is to protect everyone’s rights to connect and communicate free of government surveillance, companies know they can lose their clients’ trust if governments undermine their privacy protections.

Since the USA Freedom Act failed to move forward last fall, anti-surveillance advocates have searched for a means of achieving strong and meaningful reform. The letter, spearheaded by the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, sets out key principles that groups from across the political spectrum agree must be included in any such reform measures:

  • There must be a clear and effective end to bulk collection practices under the USA Patriot Act, including under the Section 215 records authority and the Section 214 authority regarding pen registers and trap & trace devices. Any collection that does occur under those authorities should have appropriate safeguards in place to protect privacy and users’ rights.
  • The bill must contain transparency and accountability mechanisms for both government and company reporting, as well as an appropriate declassification regime for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court decisions.

To be clear, these protections alone don't offer comprehensive reform. Many groups, including the Free Press Action Fund, could still oppose a bill that offered up only these protections and stopped there. However, the letter provides Congress and the White House with some much-needed guidance and urges them to oppose anything that fails to include at least these bare-minimum baseline improvements.

We'll keep pushing for a strong bill. However, if nothing develops, you should look for our work around surveillance reform to heat up as we approach the June sunset of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which authorizes bulk collection of Americans’ personal information.

If Congress can’t get its act together to protect our rights ahead of this deadline, the fight this summer is going to be intense.

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Sandra Fulton

Sandra Fulton

Sandra coordinates Free Press’ legislative outreach and lobbying efforts. Before joining Free Press, she served as a legislative assistant in the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office, where she focused on First Amendment and privacy issues, including Net Neutrality, minority media ownership, government spying programs, and updating the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. Prior to that, she served as a research associate for a 2008 congressional campaign in Maryland and worked in Discovery Communications’ government relations group. Sandra earned a degree in political science from the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter @radsandy.

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