Groups Say Reporting Requirement in Intel Authorization Bill Threatens Free Speech & Civil Liberties

A coalition of civil liberties and free speech advocates joined The Constitution Project in opposing a provision in the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2016 that would require all providers of Internet communications services to report to government authorities when they obtain “actual knowledge” of apparent “terrorist activity” on their services.

In a letter delivered to Senate leaders on August 4, the groups wrote such a provision “risks bringing wholly innocent people under the scrutiny of the U.S. government in a procedure that includes no limits on the use of the reported information and no safeguards against abuse. Such a reporting requirement would create a chilling effect on constitutionally protected speech and would impermissibly burden individuals’ First and Fourth Amendment rights.”

The groups said adoption of the requirement would likely lead to significant over-reporting because it force providers to distinguish when a given comment is a true threat of violence, an expression of a sincerely held religious belief, or a simply joke among friends, a determination providers are ill-equipped to make. “The potential for this scrutiny will unavoidably exert a chilling effect on protected speech and will burden individuals’ First Amendment rights to speak and to access information,” the letter said.

Such a reporting requirement would also hurt the ability U.S. service providers to compete globally, the groups wrote, noting that providers have worked diligently in the post-Snowden years to regain their users’ confidence in the privacy and security of their services. “These efforts would be thoroughly undermined by the creation of a new obligation on these providers to inform on their users directly to the U.S. government based on an undefined set of criteria and with no protections for users’ rights,” the letter said.

In addition to The Constitution Project, groups signing the letter include the ACLU, the American Library Association, the Center for Democracy & Technology, Computer & Communications Industry Association, the Consumer Federation of America, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, FreedomWorks, the Liberty Coalition, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Restore the Fourth and TechFreedom.

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