A coalition of major tech companies and digital rights organisations sent a letter on Friday to U.S. House of Representatives leaders of both parties urging them to allow a vote on an amendment to prohibit the FBI from collecting Americans’ web browsing data without a warrant.
The letter comes as the House prepares to vote as early as next week to reauthorise three key FBI surveillance tools under the USA Freedom Act. The law, passed in 2015, enacted several privacy reforms brought on by the Edward Snowden revelations. But privacy hawks on Capitol Hill warn the re-authorisation bill that is currently under consideration contains a gaping loophole that would enable the FBI to essentially scoop up the search and browser histories of U.S. citizens without a warrant.
Friday’s letter includes signatures from Demand Progress, Reddit, Mozilla, Twitter and Patreon. Reform Government Surveillance, an advocacy group that represents Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, LinkedIn, Snap, Inc., Dropbox and Verizon Media, also signed the letter.
The Internet Infrastructure Coaltion, or i2Coalition, also lent its support. The coalition’s members include Amazon, GoDaddy, NordVPN and Oracle, among dozens of others.
The letter calls on top lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to permit a vote on a House version of the Wyden-Daines amendment, which came in just a single vote shy of passing in the Senate last week. The amendment sought to prohibit the FBI from accessing the search and web browsing history of American citizens without first obtaining a search warrant.
“As leading Internet businesses and organisations, we believe privacy and security are essential to our economy, our businesses, and the continued growth of the free and open internet. By clearly reaffirming these protections, Congress can help preserve user trust and facilitate the continued use of the Internet as a powerful contributing force for our recovery,” the letter says.
Search and browsing history can provide a detailed portrait of our private lives. It may reveal medical conditions, religious beliefs, and personal relationships, and it should be protected by effective legal safeguards. Some of us do not collect this information; some of us have pressed the courts to adopt a higher standard for this data; all of us believe this information should only be produced with a warrant. Congress should take this opportunity to resolve any potential ambiguity and provide strong legal protections for all search and browsing history.
Our users demand that we serve as responsible stewards of their private information, and our industry is predicated on that trust. Americans deserve to have their online searches and browsing kept private, and only available to the government pursuant to a warrant. We respectfully urge you to include the text of the Wyden/Daines amendment as part of the USA FREEDOM Reauthorization Ac
The re-authorisation bill was sent back to the House of Representatives this week after other privacy protections were added to the bill. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California, and Rep. Warren Davidson, Republican of Ohio, have proposed introducing their own version of Wyden-Daines and are pressing Democratic leadership to allow a vote.
Ultimately, it’s up to the House Rules Committee, chaired by Rep. Jim McGovern, whether the vote happens. Speaking on condition of anonymity, Gizmodo’s sources say McGovern is only likely to push for a rule favouring a vote if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi allows it. So far, Pelosi appears to be strongly opposed, siding with Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
In addition to Pelosi and her Republican counterpart McCarthy, Friday’s letter was addressed to Congressmen Jerry Nadler and Jim Jordan, the chairman and ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, respectively. The committee has primary jurisdiction over foreign surveillance matters and its top members’ voices are widely depicted as influential in the fight.
On Thursday, Gizmodo reported that, during a caucus call, Democratic leaders claimed that both Schiff and Nadler were on board with calling for a suspension vote, a risky manoeuvre that requires a two-thirds majority and would put the bill’s pro-privacy amendments that have already been approved at risk. Nadler, however, was not present for the call, and his chief spokesperson disputed leadership’s claim.
Gizmodo also reported that Nadler has privately expressed support for an amendment to secure Americans’ browser histories from warrantless collection, but told aides he does not plan to say so publicly in opposition to Pelosi.
A separate coalition letter, signed by 71 groups and led by the American Civil Liberties Union and FreedomWorks, likewise called on Pelosi, McCarthy, McGovern, Nadler and others to allow a vote in the House, saying it would “help address serious concerns among the public that civil liberties are at a heightened risk during this time of crisis.”
Featured photo: Getty