Email privacy legislation moving forward in House

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The House Judiciary Committee will vote next month on email privacy legislation that has failed to move despite widespread support in recent years.

Committee Chairman Bob Goddlatte (R-Va.) on Wednesday said the legislation is necessary to update a 1986 law to explicitly require the government to obtain a warrant when it is seeking to access emails or other electronic communications. 

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“It’s clear that the law needs to be modernized and updated to ensure it keeps pace with ever-changing technologies so that we protect Americans’ constitutional rights and provide law enforcement with the tools they need for criminal investigations in the digital age,” he said in a statement. 

Advocates for reform have become impatient in Congress. The announced vote came after Rep. Suzan DelBeneSuzan DelBeneOvernight Tech: Feds pressed to review social media in background checks Small businesses and the woman card Congress, it’s time to vote on email privacy MORE (D-Wash.) had earlier in the day wanted to add the privacy bill as an amendment to a separate vote in the committee. However, the vote was delayed. 

The Email Privacy Act is aimed at closing a loophole in the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) that lets the government use a subpoena, rather than a warrant, to force companies such as Google and other service providers to hand over customers' electronic communications if they are more than 180 days old.

The bill is supported by a super-majority of the House, with 308 cosponsors. It garnered 272 cosponsors in the last Congress but still failed to get a committee markup.

“With 308 of my colleagues – a majority of both Republicans and Democrats – and a majority of the Judiciary Committee in support of the bill, the markup should be brief and the bill should swiftly move to the House floor for passage,” said Rep. Kevin YoderKevin YoderHow Congress should proceed on the Kelsey Smith Act Overnight Cybersecurity: FBI won't tell Apple how it hacked iPhone House unanimously passes email privacy bill MORE (R-Kan.), one of the primary sponsors of the bill. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on a similar bill last year, but it has not received a committee vote.

Reform has been a big priority for major technology companies and privacy advocates for the past few years. However, the Justice Department and some civil enforcement agencies have opposed the legislation in its current form, asking for carve-outs. 

Goodlatte has been sympathetic to those arguments, and has also endorsed changes to the bill that would strengthen a provision to make sure law enforcement can obtain the data during emergency situations. 

Despite the push for reform, federal agencies have not used the ECPA loophole in years, because of a 2010 court case that put the constitutionality of the provision into doubt.

— This post has been corrected. The Senate Judiciary Committee has not approved the bill. An earlier version contained incorrect information.