The 115th Congress Debates Email Privacy

How much access should authorities have to emails and other electronic communication? What rules should there be for how that information is obtained? These are questions the 115th congress has been debating at the start of 2017.

The bill titled H.R. 387, which will eventually be called the “Email Privacy Act,” discusses the regulations for authorities to obtain emails. It would require the US Department of Justice and other authorities to obtain search warrant before accessing emails and other electronic communications more than 180 days old. It is a bipartisan law, originally introduced by Kevin Yoder, a republican from Kansas, along with Jared Polis, a Democrat from Colorado. The existing law addressing electronic communication is titled the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. Current law states that authorities can obtain data by issuing a subpoena to the Internet service. No judicial approval is currently necessary, but the bill hopes to change that. In the 113th congress, the Email Privacy Act never passed the subcommittee stage. The 114th congress saw this law move a little further, but became stuck in the Senate because of weakening amendments. Now, the 115th congress will take it on again.

Those in support of H.R. 387 argue that the current law doesn’t provide adequate privacy for individual’s electronic communications. It certainly infringes on an ongoing moral debate about what the government should have access to and what online material belongs to an individual to be kept private. Are emails a possession of the individual?

Several big-name companies have voiced their support for the bill. A few include Amazon, Dropbox, Google, HP, Twitter, and Yahoo, along with the US Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Tax Reform. Additional support was expressed in an online We the People petition, which garnered more than 100,000 signatures. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, though agreeing with the bill, deems it imperfect because it doesn’t require the government to notify users when their data is searched. The argue that notifying is an important step to take.

While many are in favor of the Email Privacy Act, a few opponents include federal agencies that rely on the subpoenas to conduct investigations. For example, the Federal Trade Commission voices objection. The officials are worried that their ability to obtain certain information from Internet providers could be hindered. Will their concerns be enough to complicate the process enough to stop the bill? Only time will tell.

So far, the Email Privacy Act has passed through a good number of steps on the way to becoming a law. It has been introduced and passed to be brought to the floor of the House. Next, it was referred to the subcommittee of Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations. Mr. Yoder, the sponsor of the bill, moved to suspend the rules and pass the bill. It was then considered under the suspension of the rules, CR H988–992. This was followed by 40 minutes of debate in the House, and a motion to suspend the rules and pass the bill was agreed to by a voice vote. The Senate has received the Email Privacy Act, and the bill itself was read twice to the Judiciary Committee. The whole process took about a month, from January 9, 2017, to February 7. According to predictgov.com, the probably of enactment for the Email Privacy Act is 33%.

Perhaps it will break its unsuccessful streak with the 115th congress, but perhaps the complications of passing a bill will get the best of it again. Whatever the case, the internet privacy debate will continue to be important in our modern society.