Video of the House Judiciary Committee’s hearing on Wednesday.
The US House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday approved legislation requiring that the authorities get a court warrant to obtain e-mail stored in the cloud.
There was no immediate date set for a floor vote on the Email Privacy Act, which would unwind a President Ronald Reagan-era law that allows the authorities to access e-mail from service providers without a warrant if the message is at least 180 days old.
The 1986 e-mail privacy law, adopted when CompuServe was king, considered cloud-stored e-mail and other documents older than six months to be abandoned and ripe for the taking.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said, “Reforming this outdated law has been a priority for me as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and I have worked with members and stakeholders for years to bring this law into the 21st century.”
Before you start cheering, there’s a long way to go before this measure becomes law.
And it’s unlikely that it will.
There is no guarantee that it will reach the House floor for a vote, and the Senate would have to approve it, too.
And then it would have to be signed by President Obama before he leaves office in January.
Similar versions of this legislation have been approved or debated in one committee or the other each year for nearly a decade.
So it remains to be seen whether Congress has the willpower to push the measure through.
The legislation the House Committee approved on a 28-0 vote Wednesday was co-sponsored by 314 representatives.
It was watered down, however.
A provision demanding that the target of the warrant be notified about the warrant was removed from the legislation.
Because of varying case-law on whether a warrant is required, many companies, including Google, already demand one.
Still, a group of companies from Amazon to Yahoo supported the measure despite it not achieving “all of the reforms we had hoped for.” (PDF)
The Center for Democracy and Technology applauded the committee passing H.R. 699.
“Every single American will enjoy greater privacy protection in their personal communications with the passage of the Email Privacy Act.
It’s a huge step forward to bring the same protections we enjoy in our homes to our digital lives,” said Chris Calabrese, the group’s VP of policy. “With such overwhelming support, the House should move quickly to vote for and pass this essential bill.”
In addition to e-mail, the bill spells out that warrants are required for all online documents and other private electronic documents like photos, just like warrants are needed for physical papers and effects.
Government agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission had lobbied against the measure and wanted it to be carved out of the law.
The SEC said it would make its job of policing securities fraud more difficult.
The House version did not cave to the SEC.
Listing image by Jurgen Appelo