On Thursday, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee voted forward a bill that would force tech companies to report web users to the Drug Enforcement Agency if they suspected them of engaging in criminal drug activity. The controversial Cooper Davis Act, named so after a Kansas teenager who died of a fentanyl overdose in 2021, has rankled privacy advocates, who see the proposed legislation as a gateway to broad internet surveillance efforts by the federal government. Proponents of the bill say it would help crack down on illicit drug markets that have been proliferating on social media platforms.
The committee, which had been debating the bill for weeks, voted to advance it 16-5. The proposed law now heads to the Senate floor, where it could soon be subject to a debate and a general vote.
Numerous advocacy groups that had warned against the passage of the legislation released statements on Thursday condemning the committee’s decision. Cody Venzke, senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the following:
“The Senate Judiciary Committee’s vote today to advance the Cooper Davis Act to the Senate floor is a misstep. The bill will expand law enforcement’s access to user data, undermine the protections of Constitutional statutory warrant requirements, and exacerbate existing racial disparities in criminal drug enforcement. Platforms are not equipped to be deputized as DEA informants, and this bill will likely cause more harm than it heals. We urge the full Senate to reject this approach.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, another organization that has lobbied against the bill, shared a statement with Gizmodo from the foundation’s Surveillance Litigation Director Andrew Crocker. Crocker said:
“We’re disappointed that the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill that would weaken already inadequate privacy laws and threaten the encryption we all rely on to stay safe online. Its vague requirements and criminal penalties would result in companies over-reporting users to the Drug Enforcement Administration for innocent, protected speech. And because the bill encourages companies to undermine encryption out of fear of liability, it could lead to dragnet scanning of private user communications. This bill contains no warrant requirement, no required notice, and limited user protections, and deserves to be defeated on the Senate floor.”
The Cooper Davis Act would force tech platforms to report users for perceived drug infringements. If web users were suspected of criminal activity, platforms would be obligated to send detailed reports directly to the DEA that included personal information on the user. Platforms that did not comply with this regulation could face steep fines and would open themselves up to liability.
Critics have said that the legislation would be a disaster for internet privacy and could lead to broad surveillance programs that sidestep Fourth Amendment protections for web users. Due to the bill’s inclusion of liability for tech companies that “willfully blind” themselves to drug activity on their platforms, critics also worry that the legislation could dissuade companies from providing privacy protecting services, like end-to-end encryption.
The ACLU’s Venzke told Gizmodo that he hopes the Senate leadership will have the wisdom not to advance the bill. “The Senate is only in session for a few more weeks before they go on their August recess,” said Venzke. “There’s a lot of pressure to get a lot of things done in the next few weeks here. We’ll see if they have the capacity” to pass it, he said. “My hope is that even if this bill goes to the floor like others before it, Senate leadership will be wise enough to recognize that this is not the right balance between the goals of the bill and our privacy and freedom of expression online.”