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Domestic surveillance bill advances to House floor

[JURIST] The US House Judiciary Committee [official website] voted 20 to 16 along party lines Wednesday to approve [press release, PDF] the Electronic Surveillance Modernization Act of 2006 [HR 5825 summary], a measure that would relax warrant requirements for electronic surveillance [JURIST news archive] of certain domestic communications, making such warrants easier and faster to secure. The legislation would also permit wiretaps on US citizens for up to 90 days following a terrorist attack, and would retroactively shield people and companies from liability for complying with surveillance requests from government intelligence programs, such as those at issue in several pending lawsuits [JURIST report] against AT&T and other telecom providers. According to the committee's press release, the bill "updates and reforms the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to fight the modern terrorist threat and provides increased congressional and FISA Court oversight of surveillance operations." House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner [official website] called the legislation "critical to our national efforts to detect and disrupt acts of terrorism."

Critics of the legislation, including Rep. John Conyers (MI) [official website], the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, have opposed the bill because it fails to limit executive power to conduct warrantless surveillance and extends permissible eavesdropping to people and companies with no connection to foreign governments and terrorists. The Computer and Communications Industry Association [advocacy website], members of which include Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, said in an open letter [PDF] to the committee on Tuesday that the proposed legislation would "corrode the fundamental openness and freedom necessary" for communications networks. CNET News has more.

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