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On the Take: Tech Companies Lobby Hard to Kill Bills Targeting the NSA

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As the first legislative session for the OffNow campaign unfolded, it became clear that the prime opposition to state measures prohibiting material support to the NSA would come from two main fronts: law enforcement and tech companies.

The law enforcement lobby opposition didn’t particularly surprise us. Cops generally protest against anything that will place limits on them. That the law enforcement community opposes a measure effectively eliminating a big chunk of evidence available to them should shock nobody. And with all of the funding and asset forfeiture dollars available through working with federal agencies in the “Drug War,” police fear any action that could upset the apple cart.

But the vehement opposition from the tech corporation sector was a bit of a surprise. It was aggressive and clearly coordinated at the national level.

For instance, letters from the IT Alliance for the Public Sector opposing Fourth Amendment Protection Acts turned up in at least three different states.  AT&T, Verizon and Cox Communications also flexed their muscle in an attempt to kill bills aimed at reining in the NSA.

Our experience with AT&T and Cox was primarily in Arizona. At least that’s where the companies were the most aggressive in lobbying against the bill, although I am certain it’s happening in other states too. The Fourth Amendment Protection Act cleared two committees in Arizona and was on the way to the full Senate. So, the bill had momentum, thus the more aggressive lobbying.

In Arizona, these tech companies used the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce as a front initially. We only found out they were the companies pushing hard because somebody us a copy of an email Cox sent to some senators.

Their objections were rather vague: mostly that the language was “too broad” and that they would be forced to choose between state and federal law. We proposed several amendments that drastically reduced the restrictions on corporations, including making it clear that the bill only applied to companies when they were directly engaged in work for the state, clarifying that the law would not prohibit companies from supplying data to the feds under a subpoena or court order. We also proposes language clarifying that the data collection prohibited was “involuntarily” gathered information, absent a warrant or judicially recognized court order. After all, the bill was meant to address spying, not general data sharing at the federal level. So, the amendment language clarified, for example, that the legislation would not prohibit the IRS from sharing tax data with other agencies.

Even after offering amendments, the companies still maintained their opposition in Arizona.

Here is part of the email from Cox that was sent to Arizona state senators.

The sponsor claims to have an amendment that will fix SB1156. But the amendment only allows a business to share customer information with the federal government obtained on a voluntarily basis. However, under a whole host of laws, telecommunications businesses are required to gather information from customers in order to provide service. Discerning what information, if any, was given “voluntarily” by each customer, simply is not practical.

At that point, realizing that the business lobby was going to kill the bill, we simply proposed removing corporations from the equation all together. They still opposed the bill.

So clearly, tech company opposition was based on more than they let on through the correspondence we saw, or what we’ve been told. We addressed every one of their objections in Arizona. We bent over backwards to fairly accommodate their concerns. all to no avail.

There was also apparently intense lobbying in Tennessee. In opening statements during the Civil Justice Committee hearing for the Tennessee Fourth Amendment Protection Act, committee chair Rep.  John Lundberg (R) mentioned business opposition to the bill.

I also have a letter from an organization, and I won’t read you the entire thing, but they’re also believing, even as amended, this could be interpreted as banning companies from doing business with the state of Tennessee, or a political subdivision. So this bill could inadvertently, I think – at least I hope you’re not trying to kill jobs in Tennessee.

I have no idea what Lundberg was talking about when he mentioned business opposition to the amended bill. There was nothing in the amended language that addressed corporations.

Much mystery.

As this first legislative session for the OffNow campaign winds down, we will be looking at ways to counter this intense business opposition as we continue the battle next year.

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