Google, Facebook warn of ‘abuse’ if feds can seize emails without a warrant

Google, Facebook, Microsoft and other Internet companies are urging the Senate to rebuff federal regulators who want the power to seize emails without a warrant.

The Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) have asked senators to exempt them from requirements in pending legislation that would require government officials to obtain a warrant before ordering companies to hand over content.

The 

Silicon Valley giants, joined by privacy advocates, warned that granting the exemption would threaten privacy rights.

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"Personal privacy would suffer, and the potential for government abuse would expand dramatically, because an individual or company whose records were sought would have no opportunity to object. This would turn civil proceedings into fishing expeditions at a huge cost to individual privacy and the confidentiality of proprietary data," the groups wrote in the letter, which was sent to members of the Senate on Friday.

The letter was also signed by Amazon, eBay, Reddit, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and dozens of other companies and advocacy groups.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation earlier this year that would require government officials to obtain a warrant before demanding that an Internet company turn over online communications and content. Under current law, officials are able to obtain the information with only a subpoena, which does not require a judge's approval. 

The Justice Department and the SEC argue that, because they do not have warrant authority in civil cases, the bill would impede critical investigations into issues involving civil rights, antitrust, financial fraud and environmental protection issues. Warrants are only available for criminal cases. 

But in their letter, the companies and privacy groups argued that regulators could still obtain relevant information by subpoenaing the individuals or companies who are under investigation. They said defendants and their lawyers should be making decisions about when to withhold irrelevant or privileged documents, not a third-party Internet provider who isn't involved in a case. 

"The SEC proposal would turn that process on its head. If a civil regulatory agency could serve process on the target’s communications service provider, the provider would be forced to turn over all of the information in the target’s account, even if irrelevant to the subject of the investigation or legally privileged, since the service provider would be in no position to make a judgment about what was privileged or relevant," they wrote.