Web giants warn email privacy bill would undermine protections

New legislation designed to protect people’s emails might have the unintended consequence of actually weakening their privacy on the Internet, major companies warned on Thursday.

The head of the Internet Association, which represents Silicon Valley giants including Google, Facebook, AOL and Yahoo, issued a statement on Thursday criticizing Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin HatchMedicare trust fund running out of money fast Long past time to fix evidence-sharing across borders Overnight Tech: Facebook's Sandberg comes to Washington | Senate faces new surveillance fight | Warren enters privacy debate MORE’s (R-Utah) Law Enforcement Access to Data Stored Abroad (LEADS) Act.

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“Government surveillance laws that extend beyond U.S. borders are a significant problem for Internet companies and their global community of users, but the LEADS Act, as currently written, could incentivize data localization and therefore weaken user privacy,” trade group president Michael Beckerman said in a statement.

The bill from Hatch and Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) seeks to update the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), which allows law enforcement agencies to obtain emails and other digital information stored in the “cloud” without a warrant as long as they are more than 180 days old.

It also addresses an ongoing standoff between Microsoft and the Justice Department over evidence stored on a foreign server. The LEADS Act would prevent the government from nabbing data stored abroad if it is not associated with an American or would violate that host country’s laws.

Tech companies have long urged for an update to the 1986 law, which they say is woefully out of date and puts users’ privacy at risk. Lawmakers supporting the new legislation said that without it, foreign tech companies could gain a competitive advantage by telling people that American firms don’t protect their data from the U.S. government.  

BSA | The Software Alliance, another industry trade group, on Thursday said that the bill “affirms electronic privacy rights and helps rebuild consumer trust” without sacrificing law enforcement's powers.

But the Web trade group took issue with its focus on where data is stored, which it warned might inspire host governments to clamp down on their operations and undermine online privacy.

“The Internet Association believes that an alternative approach focusing rules on a user’s citizenship — rather than where the data is stored — can address these concerns, and we look forward to working with Congress on protecting users and reforming government surveillance,” Beckerman said.

The opposition could point to trouble for Hatch’s bill.

ECPA reform has been a priority for lawmakers in both chambers, but there are a number of competing legislative efforts to update the law.