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The National Security Agency has lost the political support it needs to maintain its controversial Internet and phone dragnet spying operation. Yesterday, July 24th, the House of Representatives nearly ratified the most brazen amendment to completely cut off funds for any broad NSA spying program (failing 205-217). With more time to build grassroots momentum and craft a less brute-force law curtailing NSA spy powers, the next bill will likely have enough support to win the day.

With only a few days to prepare, Representative Justin Amash managed to gain traction for an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that would deny the NSA the ability to use funds toward programs that broadly spied on Americans. The surprise was that a majority of Democrats bucked their own leader, President Obama, in support of the Amendment, 111-83.

Just seen how close the Amash amendment vote was (217-205). Amazing shift in momentum on NSA surveillance among lawmakers.

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James Ball (@jamesrbuk) July 25, 2013

Since the revelation that the NSA was collecting phone records and Internet browsing behavior en masse, supporters of the the Domestic spying program have worried that the laws would not be renewed. Specifically, the NSA gets its legal authority from section 215 of the 9/11-era Patriot Act.

Section 215 expires at the end of 2015,” Patriot Act author Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, told his colleagues during a Congressional hearing this month. “Unless you realize you’ve got a problem, that is not going to be renewed. There are not the votes in the House of Representatives to renew Section 215 . In other words, come 2015, Congress will be unlikely to renew the law that permits the NSA’s controversial program.

Over the past month, there have been a few laws proposed to limit the NSA’s ability to spy on Americans. Representative Steve Cohen’s FISA Accountability Act, for instance, would require both Congress and the Supreme Court justices to appoint new judges to the court that approves NSA spying request (FISA), rather than give conservative Chief Justice John Roberts the authority to appoint them himself. The FISA Court approves nearly every single NSA spying request, and this would, in theory, appoint judges who are more 4th-Amendment friendly (currently, there are 10 Republican judges and 1 Democrat, according to Wonkblog).

Unfortunately for NSA critics, none of the proposals came up to a full vote, so House members never had to declare whether they were for or against the status quo.

Now, we have definitive evidence that nearly half Democrats and Republicans support a radical reduction in NSA surveillance capabilities. A much greater percentage probably agree that there should be some change.

At the very least, it’s unlikely that the legal basis of the NSA dragnet will make it past the Patriot Act’s 2015 renewal date. In anticipation of this loss, the intelligence agencies will likely have to find some kind of compromise that will pass congress, rather than risk losing all of their powers.

Those who voted against Amash’s amendment today should be very (very) worried about the angry mobs they will face back home. The American populace has a particular talent for making life difficult for members when they hold town halls. Below is a video of the some of the angry town halls that House members faced during the 2009 health-care debate:


Yesterday, we published a list of representatives who voted down Amash’s amendment. Expect these representatives to feel the heat. The momentum is on the side of change, which means that NSA’s golden age of spying will likely be coming to an end.

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The most unproductive Congress in history is on a mini-roll: the House of Representative passed its second piece of tech legislation this week. The Google and White House-backed Innovation Act seeks to punish so-called “patent trolls” that make a living from intellectual property lawsuits.

“They don’t actually produce anything themselves. They’re just trying to essentially leverage and hijack someone else’s idea to see if they can extort some money out of them,” said President Barack Obama in a Google+ Hangout earlier this year.

There are a few key troll loopholes that the act from Representative Bob Goodlatte seeks to close.

Transparency: Patent trolls can often win money by threatening to sue innovators without much detail or by hiding behind shell corporations. The Innovation Act requires plaintiffs to detail their complaints and who they actually are. For instance, infamous patent troll Intellectual Ventures has 1,000 companies asserting patent rights*.

Losers Pay: There’s not much financial risk for patent trolls to sue innovators en masse, so the Innovation Act makes it easier for defendants to recoup their loses should they win (an often easy) case. It also denies patent trolls the ability to hide behind smaller shell companies to avoid such losses.

Protect Users: Some patent trolls are brazen enough to claim they own key patents on Wi-Fi (yes, Wi-Fi), so they’ve been suing everyone from coffee shops to hotels. “The Innovation Act allows technology vendors to step into the shoes of their customers and fight lawsuits against trolls on their customers’ behalf,” says the Washington Post’s Timothy Lee.

While most of the tech scene supports it (including the major lobbies such as The Internet Association and the Consumer Electronics Agency), not everyone is thrilled. “The bill will have unintended consequences that the people who drafted it don’t yet see,” Kentucky Republican and holder of 29 patents, Thomas Massie, told Businessweek. He claims the bill will “weaken the patent system overall.”

In addition, TechDirt’s Mike Masnick argues the bill stripped out an important provision to expedite the removal of low-quality patents, often held by big players such as Microsoft and Apple.

The bill will head to the Senate to continue the fight, but it’s unlikely it’ll pass by the end of the year.

*Update: Intellectual Ventures disputes the claim that they are a patent troll. In response, we have updated the link and included part of their email to us below.

“That is not true and I don’t see a source for the claim (You link to a Mark Cuban interview but it doesn’t say anything about Intellectual Ventures). Could you correct it?”
[Image Credit: Flickr User Genista]

Grassroots digital activists are looking for a new another sweet, sweet hit of political success. After successfully lobbying the White House with 100,000 petitions to overturn a law related to cell phone carrier choice, fiery young activist Sina Khanifar is demanding broader copyright reform. And, this time, he’s bringing friends: FixTheDMCA.org brings together a host of influential digital activist organizations, such as consumer watchdog group, The Electronic Frontier Foundation, and popular content aggregator, Reddit.com, to make aggressive changes to section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Originally “passed by Congress to protect music labels and the movie industry from piracy, Section 1201 is now being used to prevent Americans from making fair use of the things we buy,” writes the new grassroots hub of the movement, with tools to get friends involved and contact legislators.

The DMCA has long served as an evil totem for open-information hawks, who support greater permission for tinkering and data access, at the expense of tools that could prevent piracy. Most disturbing, says the group, it oddly gives the Library of Congress authority to determine exemptions for consumer copyright issues.

Recently, section 1201 of the DMCA was interpreted by the Library of Congress to ban users from “unlocking” their cell phones to switch between carriers. In the past, it’s been used to go after academic researchers, such as Princeton Computer Science Professor, Edward Felton, who cracked an audio security technology for preventing piracy. Felton, who was responding to a public challenge to explore its vulnerabilities, was threatened by industry groups to cease his presentations.

The winds of change seem to be at the backs of the audition activists. Changing the DMCA means going to political war with well-funded industry groups that care more about preventing piracy than broad information-sharing. But, if the success of the White House petition is any indication, nerds have come to power in very high places, and may not be swayed by lobbyists.

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