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White House ‘strongly supports’ NSA bill

The White House is putting its support behind legislation to end some of the country’s most controversial surveillance programs. Ahead of the House vote on the USA Freedom Act, the White House said that it “strongly supports” the bill, which would “provide the public greater confidence in our programs and the checks and balances in the system.”

“The bill ensures our intelligence and law enforcement professionals have the authorities they need to protect the nation, while further ensuring that individuals’ privacy is appropriately protected when these authorities are employed,” the White House added.

The legislation, written by Patriot Act author Rep Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), would effectively end the National Security Agency’s bulk collection and storage of records about Americans’ phone calls. Instead, private phone companies would keep that data and hand it over to government agents who had obtained a court order.

Sen Sanders: FCC’s net neutrality proposal ‘grotesquely unfair’

Sen Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) decision to rewrite net neutrality rules would result in “the end of the Internet as we know it” and demanded that President Barack Obama try to stop it.

“This is grotesquely unfair and will be a disaster for our economy and small businesses all around the country,” Sen Sanders said. “We cannot allow our democracy to once again be sold to the highest bidder.” Sen Sanders said that although the FCC is an independent federal agency, President Obama should publicly denounce Chairman Wheeler’s proposal.

Privacy advocates angry as NSA reforms 'watered down'

Privacy advocates that have pushed for legislation to reform US government surveillance are backing away from a House bill that they say has been "watered-down" as it heads to the floor.

Though the original bill intended to end sweeping surveillance programs, the bill that the House will vote on soon allows for “mass surveillance on a slightly smaller scale,” according to Harley Geiger, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

The bill -- the USA Freedom Act, authored by Patriot Act Rep Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) -- was originally written to prohibit the US government's sweeping surveillance program. But after moving through the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, where it saw some changes but retained the support of privacy advocates, last minute negotiations between House leadership and the Obama Administration have left the bill with weakened language when it comes to banning mass surveillance, advocates say.

Rep Sensenbrenner filed a manager’s amendment at the House Rules Committee to be considered on the floor in place of the bill that passed the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees. Rep Sensenbrenner’s amendment still prohibits bulk collection but would allow government officials to search for records using “a discrete term, such as a term specifically identifying a person, entity, account, address, or device, used by the Government to limit the scope of the information or tangible things sought.”

While the standard in Rep Sensenbrenner's amendment is more specific than the one under current law, it leaves too much room for interpretation, as opposed to earlier versions of the bill, Geiger said. It may keep the intelligence community from sweeping surveillance on a national level, but “it is ambiguous enough to allow for large scale collection,” he said.

FCC marks automated train safety progress

The Federal Communications Commission moved forward with two actions to help automatically control trains and avoid accidents. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said that the twin moves, which will help manage the rollout of the safety technology and preserve historic sites, was an important step forward for the effort.

“This agreement is an acknowledgement by the freight rail industry of the importance of environmental protection and historic preservation,” he said. The Positive Train Control system, he added, “is a transformative technology that has the power to save lives, prevent injuries, and avoid extensive property damage.”

The commission announced that it had signed a deal to allow seven freight rail companies to start testing almost 11,000 poles for the automated safety technology. In exchange, those seven railroads put together a $10 million fund to help states and tribal governments preserve cultural and historic areas.

Round 2 in Rep Amash's offensive on NSA

Rep Justin Amash (R-MI) wants to stop the government’s snooping on people’s phone calls any way he can.

The libertarian stalwart filed two amendments to the annual defense spending bill that would effectively prevent the National Security Agency (NSA) from collecting and storing bulk records about domestic phone calls. The strategy is reminiscent of a nearly successful move that came within seven votes of passage shortly after revelations about the NSA emerged from documents leaked by Edward Snowden.

The new measures are meant as a “backstop” in case a more comprehensive NSA reform bill does not get to the House floor, according to Amash's chief of staff, Will Adams. The legislation could be slated for a floor vote, but so far no session has been scheduled.

House critics ready questions for FCC chief

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler will testify in front of the House Commerce Subcommittee on Communications on the heels of decisions at his agency that have raised concerns for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

“Given some of the most recent actions out of the commission, I fear that we may be heading into rough waters,” Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) said in his prepared opening statement. Rep Walden criticized Chairman Wheeler’s attempts to rewrite the agency’s net neutrality rules and more seriously consider reclassifying Internet providers.

“The practical consequences of reclassification are to give the bureaucrats at the FCC the authority to second-guess business decisions and to regulate every possible aspect of the Internet,” he said, adding that reclassification “will harm consumers, halt job creation, curtail innovation and stifle investment.”

In his opening statement, Rep Walden also slammed Chairman Wheeler over reports that he held major revisions to key items from Republican FCC Commissioners for too long and for recent FCC actions aimed at cracking down on collusion between broadcasters.

Governors oppose online gambling ban

The National Governors Association (NGA) is opposing legislation from Sen Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Rep Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) that would ban online gambling.

"The nation's governors are concerned with legislation introduced in Congress that would ban online Internet gaming and Internet lottery sales because it challenges the federal-state relationship," the governors wrote in a letter to congressional leaders.

Backed by billionaire casino owner and conservative donor Sheldon Adelson, Graham and Chaffetz introduced twin bills in March that would ban online gambling. They argue this practice would be harmful to children who may have access to such sites from their smartphones and computers.

But the National Governors Association's Economic Development and Commerce Committee told Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) in the letter that they oppose the ban. The governors say it would take away states' rights to regulate gaming within their borders.

"The regulation of gaming is an issue that has historically been addressed by the states," the governors said. The Democratic Governors Association (DGA) also opposes the ban, but some Republican governors have supported the legislation.

AT&T exec: Deal struck with regulators in mind

The merger of AT&T and DirecTV was designed with regulators in mind and will benefit consumers, executives from the two companies said.

“There were a few areas we looked at that we thought might be areas of concern or caution for regulators,” AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said. “We’ve tried to be very proactive ... and tried to get out in front of those.” Stephenson added that the companies are making “unprecedented commitments to address concerns that the regulators might have.”

Those commitments include abiding by the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules, which kept Internet providers from slowing or blocking access to certain websites before they were struck down in federal court in early 2014. As the agency attempts to rewrite them, AT&T is pledging to obey the now-defunct rules for three years if the merger with DirecTV is approved.

Additionally, AT&T said the merger would allow it to expand its Internet service to 15 million households and would not keep the company from participating in the FCC’s upcoming airwave auctions, where it is expected to spend billions. “We have structured this transaction to ensure we have plenty of capacity to be very active in both of these auctions,” Stephenson said.

Senators pledge to monitor AT&T, DirecTV deal

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have pledged to monitor the recently announced merger of AT&T and DirecTV.

Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said that his committee "will be looking closely at this transaction." "I will closely monitor the [Federal Communications Commission's] and the antitrust authorities’ response to this announcement," Sen Leahy said in a statement.

Executives from AT&T and DirecTV are touting the deal as appealing the regulators as it includes commitments to expand Internet access in rural areas and abide by the Obama Administration's net neutrality rules, even though they were struck down by a federal court in early 2014.

In addition to reviewing the deal to combine AT&T and DirecTV, Sen Leahy's committee recently held a hearing to review the $45 billion merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable, which was announced in February. Sen Leahy said he is "concerned that the telecommunications marketplace is trending even further toward one that favors big companies over consumers."

Sen Franken: Merger will likely harm consumers

Sen Al Franken (D-MN) warned the new AT&T merger with DirecTV will likely hurt consumers. “This is going exactly in the wrong direction,” Sen Franken said on CNN’s “New Day.”

“The fewer players there are in this space, I believe it’s worse for consumers. My constituents in Minnesota will be paying more for cable.”

Sen Franken has also opposed the Comcast merger with Time Warner Cable announced in February. During congressional hearings about that deal, Sen Franken dismissed the companies' arguments that the deal would create more competition.

“No, they’re just buying each other,” Sen Franken said. “This is a bad trend.”