WASHINGTON A bill to end the government's bulk collection of telephone records cleared the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday in the first legislative effort at surveillance reform since former contractor Edward Snowden disclosed the program a year ago.
The measure, which passed 303-121, would end the National Security Agency's practice of gathering in bulk information on calls made by millions of Americans and storing them for at least five years. It would instead leave such records in the custody of telephone companies and they could search those databases at the NSA's request.
The "USA Freedom Act" would allow the NSA to collect a person's phone records if investigators can convince the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court they have a reasonable suspicion the person was involved in terrorism.
The bill's authors said it would require the government to more aggressively filter and discard information about Americans accidentally collected in these programs and increase transparency on the secret court's orders.
Some privacy advocates and tech companies withdrew their support for the bill this week after a new version was hammered out that they say watered down the reforms.
"Much of what has been weakened in the House version of USA FREEDOM will have to be restored in the Senate before the privacy and civil liberties community will be willing to support this bill again,” Kevin Bankston, policy director of the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, said in a statement on Tuesday.
The American Civil Liberties Union welcomed the bill and said it would work to get improvements in the Senate version.
"While far from perfect, this bill is an unambiguous statement of congressional intent to rein in the out-of-control NSA," said Laura W. Murphy, the ACLU's Washington director.
The bill was a compromise version of previously introduced legislation. The Senate has yet to make much progress on similar legislation. But strong support from two House committees improved its chances after a year of sharp divisions over the revelations by former NSA contractor Snowden.
The White House backed the measure and urged the Senate to act quickly to pass its own version. Jim Lewis, a senior fellow for the Center for Strategic & International Studies, said he thought the bill was functional.
"They ended up in a pretty reasonable place to preserve important collection capabilities," he said. "This is a good compromise."
(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)