Commentary

Email Privacy Bill Draws Broad House Support

A bill that would tighten digital privacy laws has now drawn its 218th House sponsor in the House, meaning that the measure has enough support to pass in the House of Representatives.

The Email Privacy Act (H.R. 1852), sponsored by  Reps. Kevin Yoder (R-Kans.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Sam Graves (R-Ga.), provides that the government must obtain a search warrant before accessing emails, documents, or other information stored in the cloud.

Currently, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act requires law enforcement authorities to get a search warrant before accessing emails that are less than six months old, but not ones that are older. For those, law enforcement only needs a subpoena.

That's important because subpoenas are far easier to obtain than search warrants. Officials typically can get subpoena by showing that an email account might contain information that's “relevant” to an investigation -- a relatively lax standard. But search warrants can only be obtained if a judge thinks there's probable cause to believe that the material sought will yield evidence of a crime.

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Digital rights advocates, and Web companies that offer cloud storage, including Google, have long pushed to revise the law. They say that differentiating between documents based on how long they've been stored doesn't make sense.

“ECPA no longer reflects users’ reasonable expectations of privacy,” David Lieber, senior privacy policy counsel at Google, says in a blog post. “Congress should send a clear message about the limits of government surveillance by enacting legislation that would create a bright-line, warrant-for-content standard.”

The trade group Direct Marketing Association agrees. The organization doesn't always see eye-to-eye with digital rights organizations on privacy issues, but is allied with them on this issue. In fact, the DMA has made ECPA reform a priority, on the grounds that protecting emails from government surveillance will help preserve what it calls the “data-driven economy.”

“The Yoder-Graves-Polis bill gives Congress the rare opportunity to guarantee the same amount of privacy to electronic communications as those offline,” the DMA says in a blog post. The group is calling in the House leadership to move the bill forward.

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