House’s Passage of Email Privacy Act Gives Advocacy Groups Momentum

The Email Privacy Act, which passed the House in a 419-0 vote on Wednesday, could be well on its way to becoming law. The bill, which updates the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 for the first time in decades, is widely supported by advocacy and trade groups that hope to see a similar vote in the Senate.

It’s hard to get every nearly member of the House to agree on anything these days, let alone a digital privacy issue, but a vote in the chamber this week proved the elusive goal possible.

Now, groups around the technology and privacy spaces are pushing for the Senate to follow suit on the Email Privacy Act. The bill, which passed the House in a 419-0 vote on Wednesday, would change a part of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 that allows electronic messages to be accessed without a warrant after 180 days. The updated bill would require warrants for such information in much the same way as phone calls and physical documents.

The Center for Democracy & Technology’s vice president of policy, Chris Calabrese, said that the changing dynamic of technology makes the 1986 law apply far beyond electronic mail.

“With the rise of cloud computing, our emails, photos and texts are stored with third parties. In order for the law to keep up with technology and users’ reasonable expectation of privacy, that information must be protected by a search warrant. That’s the same constitutional standard that protects the information we store in our homes,” Calabrese said in a news release.

Prior to the House bill’s passage, an array of major corporations, trade groups, and advocacy-minded nonprofits spoke out in favor of the law. FreedomWorks, the American Library Association, the Direct Marketing Association, the Internet Association, and the Newspaper Association of America were among the associations that signed a letter calling for the bill’s passage.

In the letter, advocates admitted that the bill represented progress but was not perfect:

The bill reported from committee does not achieve all of the reforms we had hoped for. Indeed, it removes key provisions of the proposed bill, such as the section requiring notice from the government to the customer when a warrant is served, which are necessary to protect users. However, it does impose a warrant-for-content rule with limited exceptions. We are particularly pleased that the bill does not carve out civil agencies from the warrant requirement, which would have expanded government surveillance power and undermined the very purpose of the bill.

Now the legislation moves to the Senate, where a companion bill has 26 cosponsors, though it still needs to move past committee before it can be put up for a vote. In comments on the House bill’s passage, the Internet Association called on the Senate and President Barack Obama to follow suit.

“It reinforces our constitutional rights to privacy by ensuring that police get a warrant before accessing our most sensitive electronic information. We urge the Senate to take up this bill expeditiously and get it to the President for his signature,” the association said in a statement to The Hill.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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