The House of Representatives’ passage of the USA Freedom Act yesterday is a first step towards broad reform of U.S. mass surveillance programs, but must be further strengthened when the Senate takes up the bill, PEN American Center said today. 

Regrettably, the 2015 USA Freedom Act is a weaker reform package than the 2014 version of the bill, which narrowly failed to make it to the Senate floor in November 2014. It does aim to end the bulk collection of U.S. telephone records, a key reform that PEN has long championed.  The bill just passed by the House would also implement some measures to increase transparency for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), the body charged with overseeing many government surveillance programs. 

PEN urges the Senate to strengthen the USA Freedom Act before passage by amending the bill to require the FISC to appoint a special advocate to participate in “novel or significant proceedings” to provide arguments in favor of privacy and civil liberties protections, to improve provisions regarding what the government must disclose about its collection of communications, and to eliminate the provision increasing the maximum sentence for “material support for terrorism,” which the government has construed broadly in a manner that threatens free speech and association. PEN further calls on Congress to quickly follow the passage of the USA Freedom Act with further legislative action to reform the mass surveillance programs conducted under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act.

Since 2004, PEN has called for reforms to dragnet surveillance programs that threaten constitutional and human rights. PEN’s groundbreaking 2013 report, Chilling Effects, showed that one in six U.S. writers is engaging in self-censorship due to mass surveillance. A follow-up report, Global Chilling, released in early 2015 demonstrated that writers around the world are also self-censoring out of concern over government surveillance.