The U.S. House of Representatives on Monday evening passed the Email Privacy Act, a bill that would amend Title 18 of the United States Code to include privacy protections for electronic communications stored on third-party servers.
“The times and technology have changed but the laws have not kept pace,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., said on the House floor Monday night. “Federal laws regarding how we treat and protect the privacy of digital communication have been unchanged since 1986, and because of it, our digital content is not afforded the same Fourth Amendment protections as paper documents on our desks at home.”
The proposed amendment would require law enforcement to obtain a warrant signed by a judge in order to access content stored on a third-party server and would explicitly enable the server owner to notify the affected consumer of the search unless law enforcement can prove the need for a delay of notification.
“Those emails contain pictures and videos of our kids, our business transactions–our most sensitive information that the government shouldn’t have access to without a warrant, without due process as required by the Constitution,” Yoder said. “Establishing these privacy protections are critical for both ensuring that Americans’ rights are protected, but also ensuring that all cloud computing providers are covered by the same warrant for content requirements.”
The bill received bipartisan support on the house floor as Reps. John Conyers, D-Mich., Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., Tom Emmer, R-Minn., and Jared Polis, D-Colo., all spoke in favor of the bill.
“These updates to the law will better safeguard Americans’ constitutional rights while also protecting law enforcement’s ability to fight crime,” said Goodlatte. “As the House again has overwhelmingly approved this bill, it’s time for the Senate to take up this bipartisan legislation and send it to the president’s desk to become law.”
“Clarifying the laws will also help industry stakeholders, who currently struggle to apply the existing, outdated categories of information to their products and services, and it will provide a clear standard for law enforcement,” Nadler said in his speech on the House floor. “This bill is not perfect, and clearly there is more to be done. In particular, we must keep working to require a probable cause warrant for location information. However, this bill is an important step toward ensuring that our laws strike the right balance between the interests and needs of law enforcement, and the privacy rights of the American people.”
According to Yoder, this bill also codifies the Sixth Circuit Court’s decision in U.S. v. Warshak that email communications are protected under the Fourth Amendment.