Bill To Stop Warrantless Searches of Online Browser History Fails

LOS ANGELES—Federal authorities continue to have the right to comb through internet users’ browser histories, as well as your internet search histories, collecting data on which sites users have visited, when, and for how long — as well as any other data contained in the private files. A bill that would have stripped the government of its right to conduct the searches with no warrant failed in the Senate Wednesday — by the narrowest possible margin.

The bipartisan bill — actually, an amendment to a “surveillance authority” first established under the 2001 Patriot Act — was sponsored by Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, and Montana Republican Steve Daines. But the amendment required 60 votes to move forward, and the final Senate vote was 59-37 in favor. 

For privacy advocates and critics of the Patriot Act surveillance rules, the single-vote defeat was especially frustrating, because four senators simply did not vote. One of those absentees, Democrat Patty Murray of Washington, would have voted yes, according to an aide who spoke to Politico reporter Burgess Everett. But Murray was not in the nation’s capital when the vote was called.

Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee is currently in quarantine due to exposure to coronavirus, causing him to miss the vote. Another Republican, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, also missed the vote for reasons that are unclear. Sasse did not respond to a request from the tech-news site Recode to explain his non-vote. 

The final absentee, Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders — also, of course, a former two-time Democratic presidential candidate — also did not respond to Recode, when reporters for that site called to ask why he missed the vote. A reporter for also attempted to ask Sanders why he missed the vote, but received no reply,

When Sanders was still in the presidential race, a study found that along with Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren he boasted the strongest internet technology platform in the field. But whether he would have supported the Wyden-Daines amendment remains uncertain.

"Back in 2001 when Congress passed the Patriot Act, Americans were rightly concerned about the government collecting their library borrowing records without a warrant," Wyden said during debate on the Senate floor Wednesday, as quoted by CNN. "What we're talking about here today, looking at web history browsing history, it is thousands of times more invasive of privacy."

In an interview with Recode, Wyden added, “Getting access to somebody’s web browsing history is almost like spying on their thoughts. This level of surveillance absolutely ought to require a warrant.”

Ultimately, 10 Democrats voted against the Wyden-Daines amendment, while 24 Republicans voted in favor of the bill to limit warrantlesss searches of private browsing data.

Photo By Pete Linforth / Pixabay