Tag: Senate Judiciary Committee

No Time to Debate Patriot

Back in February, Democratic leader Harry Reid promised fellow senator Rand Paul that—after years of kicking the can down the road—there would be at least a week reserved for full and open debate over three controversial provisions of the Patriot Act slated to expire this weekend, with an opportunity to propose reforms and offer amendments to any reauthorization bill.  And since, as we know, politicians always keep their promises, we can look forward to a robust and enlightening discussion of how to modify the Patriot Act to better safeguard civil liberties without sacrificing our counterterror capabilities.

Ha! No, I’m joking, of course. Having already cut the legs out from under his own party’s reformers by making a deal with GOP leaders for a four-year extension without reform, Reid used some clever procedural maneuvering to circumvent Rand Paul’s pledged obstruction, slipping the Patriot extension into an unrelated small-business bill that’s privileged against filibusters. All this just to prevent any debate on amendments—the most prominent of which, the Leahy-Paul amendment, is frankly so mild that it ought to be uncontroversial. (Among other things, it modifies some portions of the statute already found constitutionally defective by the courts, and codifies some recordkeeping and data use guidelines the Justice Department has already agreed to implement voluntarily.) Apparently it’s too much to even allow these proposals to be debated and voted on.

One reason may be that a growing number of senators—most recently Ron Wyden and Mark Udall—have been raising concerns about a classified “sensitive collection program” that makes use of the sunsetting “business records provision,” also known as Section 215.  They’ve joined Dick Durbin and (former Senator) Russ Feingold in hinting that there may be abuses linked to this program the public is unaware of, and that, moreover, the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has interpreted this provision (in a classified ruling, of course) in a way that the general public would find surprising, and which goes beyond the law’s apparent intent. Intelligence operations, of course, must remain secret, but this means we are now governed by a body of secret law, potentially at odds with citizens’ understanding of the public statute—with the result that we cannot even know the true reason that common sense reforms, once endorsed unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee, cannot be adopted. This is—to put it very mildly—not how a democracy is supposed to function. Equally troubling, there’s strong circumstantial evidence (which I’ll outline in a separate post) that the program in question may involve large-scale cell phone location tracking and data mining—a conclusion shared by several other analysts who’ve followed the issue closely.

The one silver lining here is that, while press may not have the patience for a complicated policy debate involving byzantine intelligence law—especially now that many Democrats have decided that powers which raised the specter of tyranny under George W. Bush are unobjectionable under an Obama administration—they are always happy to cover a legislative boxing match. Perhaps, thanks to Sen. Paul’s intransigence, we’ll finally see a little sunlight shed on these potent and secret surveillance powers.

Want Privacy? Increase Government Surveillance!

This morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law had a hearing entitled: “Protecting Mobile Privacy: Your Smartphones, Tablets, Cell Phones and Your Privacy.”

Among the witnesses was Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein from the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division. Weinstein made a gallingly Orwellian pitch: If you want privacy protection, increase government surveillance.

From his written statement:

ISPs may choose not to store IP records, may adopt a network architecture that frustrates their ability to track IP assignments and network transactions back to a specific account or device, or may store records for only a very short period of time. In many cases, these records are the only evidence that allows us to investigate and assign culpability for crimes committed on the Internet. In 2006, forty-nine Attorneys General wrote to Congress to express “grave concern” about “the problem of insufficient data retention policies by Internet Service Providers.”

Without more customer data retention by ISPs, and without greater government access to this data, the government won’t be able to prosecute crimes, some of which threaten privacy, Weinstein said in his spoken comments.

So there you have it. Turn more data over to the government so we can protect your privacy. War is peace. Freedom is slavery.

A Patriot Update

A few developments from a business meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee held this morning. As I noted last month the new House Intelligence Chair, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) has already introduced another one-year straight renewal without modification. Since then, Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) has introduced a bill that would renew the expiring Patriot Act surveillance provisions through 2013, but with some very basic additional safeguards and oversight requirements—many of which the Justice Department has already agreed to implement voluntarily—including most crucially added constraints and a new sunset for expanded National Security Letter powers, which have already been held at least partly unconstitutional in their current form by federal courts, and which the government’s own watchdogs have already found to be subject to widespread abuse.

Enter Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who played a key role in killing the same mild reforms last year. She’s already introduced legislation of her own, which would provide for an extension through the end of 2013, without any modifications, of not only the provisions set to expire this year, but also the highly troubling FISA Amendments Act, which in effect legalized the Bush administration’s illicit programmatic wiretapping with an added sliver of judicial oversight. Even this was not quite enough for Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who announced he would introduce a bill making the expiring provisions permanent—effectively removing an important impetus to continuing oversight.

Feinstein, interestingly, purported to be theoretically supportive of Leahy’s reformist impulses, but argued that the “time crunch” created by the end-of-February sunset deadline makes this the wrong time to consider reforms. (In order to hurry things up, a Hill contact tells me, Feinstein’s bill will be fast-tracked to the floor under Senate Rule 14, circumventing the committee process.) This really makes very little sense. Leahy’s bill is essentially the same proposal reported out favorably by a bipartisan Judiciary Committee majority; the point of doing a one-year reauthorization in 2010 was supposedly to allow Congress to consider reform alternatives in the interim. Moreover, the Justice Department has already effectively agreed to accept the reforms that bill contains. If there’s nevertheless a need for further deliberation, Congress can do exactly what it did last time around and extend the sunset by a few weeks or months to allow for additional debate.

The time constraints here are wholly of Congress’ own making. And while the Leahy bill doesn’t go far enough by any means, there is just no good excuse to delay at least the beginning of needed reforms any further.

The Sun Never Sets on the PATRIOT Act

A year ago, the protracted wrangling in Congress over the re-authorization of several expiring provisions of the PATRIOT ACT made plenty of headlines. Most observers expected the sunsetting powers to be extended, but civil libertarians hoped serious and sorely needed reforms might be part of the package. The House and Senate Judiciary Committees held multiple hearings on the topic, and an array of competing reform and reauthorization bills (PDF) were proposed, adding extra safeguards (of varying stringency) to the greatly expanded surveillance powers Congress had approved in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

But Congress had a full plate, and so it punted—approving a straight one-year reauthorization without any modifications at the last minute. (You’d be forgiven for not noticing: The extension passed under the heading of the “Medicare Physician Payment Reform Act.”) As I
noted in December, however, the Justice Department has promised Congress that it will voluntarily adopt some of the measures that had been floated in those reform bills—which would be a fine thing in itself, but I worried that the move seemed calculated to reduce the impetus for binding legislation.

Well, I’ve just noticed—quite serendipitously, as there doesn’t appear to have been a whisper in the press—that the new House Intelligence Committee Chair, Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), has introduced yet another one-year extension, which would push the sunset of the expiring provisions back to the end of February 2012. Given the very limited number of days Congress has in session before the current deadline, and the fact that the bill’s Republican sponsor is only seeking another year, I think it’s safe to read this as signaling an agreement across the aisle to put the issue off yet again. (I’ve asked Rogers’s office for a comment and will update this post if I hear back.)

In the absence of a major scandal, though, it’s hard to see why we should expect the incentives facing legislators to be vastly different a year from now. Heck, we’ve had a pretty big scandal involving the misuse of National Security Letter powers, but even right on the heels of the Inspector General’s report documenting those abuses, the mildest reforms proffered last year died on the vine. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I suspect this is how reining in the growth of the surveillance state becomes an item perpetually on next year’s agenda.

Internet Censorship Bill Threatens Free Speech, Rule of Law

On Thursday the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act. Its backers, including Hollywood and the recording industry, are hoping to rush the legislation through Congress during the current “lame duck” session. The legislation empowers the attorney general to draw up a list of Internet domain names he considers to be “dedicated to infringing activities,” and to obtain a variety of court orders designed to block access to these sites for American Internet users.

To understand the proposal, it helps to know a bit about the Domain Name System, or DNS, that is the focus of the bill. The DNS is the Internet’s directory service. Computers on the Internet are assigned (mostly) unique numbers like “72.32.118.3,” but these numbers are not convenient for human users to remember. So instead websites use domain names like “cato.org,” and our computers use the DNS system to automatically translates these names into their corresponding IP addresses. DNS is a distributed system; thousands of Internet Service Providers operate DNS servers for the use of their own customers.

Under COICA, when the attorney general accused a domain name of being “dedicated” to copyright infringement, the courts would issue orders not against the owners of the domain name (who may be overseas) but against domain-name registrars and the operators of DNS servers here in the United States. This means that thousands of systems administrators would be required to maintain a large and constantly-changing list of blacklisted domains. This is a significant and unfair administrative burden on private parties who have absolutely no connection to infringing activities.

The legislation falls far short of constitutional due process requirements. Legal injunctions would be issued upon the attorney general’s mere accusation of “infringing activities.” Not only would the owner of the domain name not have an opportunity to contest the allegations, he would not even have to be notified. And the parties who would receive notice under the legislation—DNS registrars and server administrators—will typically have no knowledge of or connection to the accused domain, which means they would have neither the knowledge or the motivation to dispute unreasonable orders.

This is especially problematic because we are talking about constitutionally-protected speech here. The Supreme Court has long held that prior restraints of speech are unconstitutional. The websites on the government’s blacklist may have a large amount of constitutionally-protected speech on them, in addition to allegedly-infringing material. Not only does COICA not require the government to prove its allegations before a domain name is blocked, it doesn’t require the government to ever prove them.

Earlier this year, my colleague Jim Harper praised Secretary Clinton’s speech making Internet freedom a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s diplomatic agenda. Secretary Clinton was right to lecture foreign governments about the evils of Internet censorship; her former colleagues in the US Senate should listen to her.

Senators (Finally) Press Kagan about ObamaCare

Back in May, I suggested:

Senate Judiciary Committee members should be sure to ask Solicitor General and Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, during her upcoming confirmation hearings, whether she or her office played any part in crafting ObamaCare or the administration’s defense to the lawsuits challenging that law. If Kagan helped to craft either, that would present a conflict of interest: when those lawsuits reach the Supreme Court, she would be sitting in judgment over a case in which she had already taken sides…

If Kagan played a role in drafting ObamaCare or formulating the administration’s legal defense, and is confirmed by the Senate, propriety would dictate that she recuse herself from any challenges to that law that reach the high court.

Committee members didn’t ask her those questions during the hearings, as The Wall Street Journal explains. Fortunately, a letter to Kagan from all seven Republicans on the committee has (exhaustively) remedied that oversight.

Kagan has already told the committee she would recuse herself from any case in which she “participated in formulating the government’s litigating position.”  Given that she appears to take an expansive view of Congress’ power to regulate interstate commerce, the best possible outcome for opponents of ObamaCare would probably be for Kagan to join the Court but recuse herself from cases challenging that law.

That would also be the worst possible outcome for the administration.  In fact, universal coverage is so important to the Left that if Kagan would leave them with one less pro-ObamaCare vote on the Court, I wouldn’t be surprised to see President Obama withdraw her nomination.  He could then appoint someone as ideologically reliable as Kagan, but who could actually defend the president’s signature accomplishment.

This could get interesting.

Global Internet Freedom via Government Regulation?

This morning’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on global Internet freedom opened with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) announcing that he would “introduce legislation that would require Internet companies to take reasonable steps to protect human rights or face civil or criminal liability.”  Durbin’s staff tell me they’re in the early phases of hammering out a draft, so exactly what that amounts to isn’t clear yet, but my first-pass gut reaction is that this has the potential to do as much harm as good.

The argument for establishing some such set of rules is pretty straightforward: You don’t want the perverse scenario where corporations worry they’re shirking their fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders if they fail to compete in the market to provide sophisticated technologies of control and repression to the world’s most authoritarian regimes. You don’t want despots exploiting the innovation that springs from the very freedom they deny their own people as a means to cement their own control. It’s possible to frame this as a collective action problem, with tech companies happy to “do the right thing” provided all their competitors do—but with each ultimately deciding to play ball for fear that if they don’t, someone else will.  If that accurately captures the dynamic—and, crucially, if the field of competitors is heavily concentrated in the United States—the binding power of legislation could increase the pressure on foreign governments to abandon repressive Internet policies. In theory, anyway.

But which steps are “reasonable,” and who decides? Google’s recent announcement that it would—eventually—cease its complicity in China’s regime of Internet censorship was greeted with general approbation, to the point where it’s easy to forget that, even if you’re exclusively concerned with what’s in the interest of the Chinese people, it’s a hard call whether and when a principled refusal to deal is really better than distasteful engagement. As Google’s Nicole Wong put it at the hearing, the company’s decision to launch Google.cn in 2006 was premised on “the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results.” They’ve now apparently decided that the balance of considerations cuts the other way, but it needs to be stressed that it’s still a question of balance, and there will be real costs to withdrawal.

The tools Google provides can be useful to scholars and activists despite the constraints imposed by the Chinese government—and even when Google does censor search results, it endeavors to make that censorship at least somewhat transparent, announcing to users that some content has been removed. Few expect China to blink in the face of Google’s ultimatum, but it’s also worth noting that whatever leverage companies like Google do have over foreign regimes depends in significant part on their having been there in the first place to develop a user base.  One can imagine the government facing a political backlash if China’s second most popular search engine disappears; it’s hard to imagine much outcry over the decision not to enter the market in the first place. Then again, maybe the upshot of all this will just be that the 30 percent of Chinese Internet users who’d gotten censored results on Google will shrug and get their censored results from Baidu instead.

None of this is to say that Google’s new course is wrong, just that the questions are complex enough that I’d be chary of imposing criminal penalties on a company that made a different call about the balance of interests. Our own government, after all, routinely decides that some Greater Good is served by cooperation with frankly loathsome regimes, and the track record to date does not inspire vastly more confidence in their judgment than in Google’s.

Speakers at the hearing also broached the possibility of government support for various encryption and circumvention technologies that would be useful to foreign dissidents. I’m all for loosening export controls, but as Durbin himself noted, there’s a tricky line to walk here: Without a clear separation of Tech and State, repressive regimes will eagerly seek to reframe their arguments with tech firms over the degree of freedom their people should enjoy as an argument with the United States, which will be portrayed as seeking to “force” our particular conception of democracy on sovereign nations. It will be a spurious argument, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work.

I’ll wait to see the actual bill before rendering any firm judgment, but it seems like it would be awfully easy to pass legislation that lets us pat ourselves on the back for our noble ideals without actually doing a whole lot to advance online freedom in practice.