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Congress pulls surveillance bill that included protections from warrantless browser searches

The legislation would have reauthorized key expired surveillance tools, and included enhanced privacy protections.

Legislation that reauthorized key domestic surveillance laws and would have protected Americans from warrantless searches of browsing data has been pulled, following a Tweet from the president.

The bill, the USA Freedom Reauthorization Act of 2020, would have renewed expired surveillance provisions, some of which date back to the Patriot Act. Of particular note is Section 215, which allows for the government to obtain "tangible things" — including browser and search histories — without a warrant during natural security investigations. That provision has been in effect since 2001 but expired in March, so Congress needs to reauthorize it.

An amendment provision to the reauthorization bill that would have offered barred the FBI from warrantless searches of Americans' browsing history failed in the Senate by one vote in May, prompting a coalition of tech companies and civil rights groups to urge House lawmakers to include similar privacy protections.While the amendment to Section 215 failed, other privacy protections were included in the reauthorization. Since the Senate amended the legislation, it had to go back to the House for another vote.

On May 22, House leaders announced that they had struck a deal to include provisions against warrantless browser history data. A few days later, the Justice Department recommended to President Donald Trump that he veto the bill because those amendments would "weaken national security tools," NPR reported.

However, opposition to the reauthorization continued to mount from all sides. President Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday that he hopes Republicans vote no on the legislation until there was an investigation of alleged abuses of surveillance powers by the Obama administration. A day after that, Trump signaled that he would likely veto the bill.

Progressive Democrats also said that they'd vote against it, calling the included privacy protections "far too narrow in scope" and stating that the reauthorization would still "leave the public vulnerable to invasive online spying and data collection."

Sen. Ron Wyden, a leading legislator on privacy issues, shot down his support of the bill on an amendment slated to increase privacy protections for Americans. Following clarification that the Section 215 amendment was narrower than originally anticipated, Sen. Wyden dropped his support and urged the House to vote on his original amendment that failed in the Senate.

The bill was originally passed in the House earlier in 2020. Typically, reauthorizations of the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA) are bipartisan, and House Republicans previously supported the legislation. The original Senate amendment that protected Americans from warrantless searches had support from a majority of Senators, but a supermajority of at least 60 is required to end debate and move a proposal such as this to a vote, Ars Technica reported.

On Wednesday, Speaker Pelosi said if Congress failed to approve the reauthorization act, the House would send the original version of the bill, which it passed earlier in 2020, back to the Senate.