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House Starts Effort to End NSA Bulk Phone Data Collection

House lawmakers consider the first of two dueling bills aimed at curbing government surveillance.

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The first of two bills aimed at overhauling government bulk data collection practices was approved in a House committee Wednesday, providing momentum for advocates hoping to curb the National Security Agency’s controversial surveillance efforts.

House Judiciary Committee members voted 32-0 to approve the USA Freedom Act, a bill that would impose new limits on how the NSA could collect Americans’ data records. It’s a version of a similar bill proposed earlier this year that gained approval from a bipartisan collection of 149 House lawmakers after some provisions were watered down.

Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan called the legislation approved Wednesday a “less than perfect compromise” but said that it would make “important vital substantive changes that will work to restore confidence in the intelligence community.”

The legislation would allow the agency to collect records from phone companies for calls made by a target, as well as the people that the target calls, with court approval. Tech and telecom companies would also be allowed to provide more public information about the number of government requests they have received.

While it’s not clear that this specific legislation will make it to President Obama’s desk for approval — a separate House committee is considering rival legislation tomorrow — the bipartisan support among members for approving some sort of legislation that would end the NSA’s bulk phone data collection suggests Congress could finally be inching toward action.

The Senate has yet to act on the issue, but could yet depending on what happens in the House.

Both House bills are similar to a White House plan announced in March that would stop the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone data and allow the agency more limited access via phone companies, which store the records.

“Although this new version of the USA Freedom Act does not contain all of the reforms that were in the previous version, it is still far and away the best NSA reform bill on the table,” said Kevin Bankston, policy director of the New America’s Open Technology Institute, a think tank partially funded by Google and other tech companies and executives.

Generally, tech and civil liberties groups approved of the legislation, although several suggested changes that would strengthen privacy and increase transparency to consumers.

“Surveillance reform legislation needs to prevent indiscriminate data collection, provide strict oversight and safeguards, and ensure there is adequate transparency regarding government requests,” said Victoria Espinel, president of BSA, the Software Alliance, in a statement supporting the bill.

In a win for tech companies and privacy advocates, lawmakers approved an amendment that would allow companies to provide more information to the public about the amount of data that government agencies have requested.

Tomorrow, the House Intelligence Committee is scheduled to meet behind closed doors to consider related legislation.

There are several differences between the two bills, including proposed limits on the NSA’s ability to collect data from Internet companies. The legislation has drawn some criticism from civil liberties groups, which say it doesn’t go far enough to rein in government data collection practices.

Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office called the House Intelligence bill a “non-starter” earlier this week and said that the rival bill in House Judiciary, while not perfect, was “certainly better.”

In response to the vote, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) said that he remained concerned that the House legislation “does not include some of the important reforms related to national security letters, a strong special advocate at the FISA Court, and greater transparency,” and said he’d push for those changes when his committee considers a bill this summer.

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