"A new Senate bill would protect not only telephone companies from lawsuits claiming illegal cooperation with the National Security Agency. It would retroactively immunize e-mail providers, search engines, Internet service providers and instant-messaging services too.
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The broad language appears in new legislation that a Senate committee approved by a 13-to-2 vote on Thursday during a meeting closed to the press and public. It enjoys the support of the panel's Democrats and Republicans.
It goes further in crafting an impenetrable legal shield than similar proposals in the House of Representatives, such as the so-called Restore Act (PDF), which immunizes only "communications service providers." Bowing to pressure from President Bush, House Democrats postponed a vote on the Restore Act last week.
The broader Senate bill (PDF) would sweep in Web sites, e-mail providers and more. "My suspicion is the scope of the immunity provision is the most revealing way to assess the scope of the underlying authority," said Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center."