Tech heads call for digital privacy law

Top tech executives want Congress to update a decades-old privacy law to clarify that the government can’t use a warrant to nab emails or other digital information stored abroad.

Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith noted during a panel discussion on Monday that one major digital privacy law dates back to 1986, which has created troubling uncertainty about people’s privacy protections and companies’ legal obligations.

“We have a Constitution that obviously predates the year 1986 by almost literally 200 years,” Smith said.


“There are certain values that have served us well over time, and frankly one of the values that has served us well is for these kinds of broad issues to be addressed by the Congress, to be addressed by the White House and then for the courts to interpret the law, rather than try to add to it in ways that go beyond their traditional role.”

The issue is especially salient for Smith’s company, which is currently locked in a legal battle with the Justice Department over a warrant for data stored on a server in Ireland.

Microsoft has refused to comply with the warrant, claiming that the government doesn’t have the authority to force it to turn over data in another country without that nation’s permission. If it wants to get that information, Microsoft says, the Obama administration ought to go through a treaty process set up for sharing evidence between countries.

The case is being closely watched by privacy advocates and tech companies, and the outcome could have serious repercussions about the treatment of information in the digital age.

It could also set a precedent for how other countries treat U.S. data abroad, noted BSA | The Software Alliance head Victoria Espinel, who formerly served as a top trade official.

“We need to think about it in a global context and the precedent that this sets for citizens around the world,” she said.

Not only should Congress act to clarify the rules for emails, she added, but the government should also streamline the ability to share evidence internationally and build international backing for the global treatment of people’s information stored in the cloud.

Earlier this year, a trio of senators introduced a new bill to prevent federal officials from using a warrant to grab foreigners’ data stored in overseas servers and update the evidence treaty process.

Smith called that bill from Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) a “very good piece of legislation” that “would protect fundamentally the rights of Americans.”

Hatch has listed that bill as one of the top items on his tech-focused agenda for 2015. 

The panel discussion on Monday came as multiple companies and outside organizations filed friend-of-the-court briefs in the Microsoft case, which is currently pending in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.