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Congress Responds to Mounting Pressure to Reform Online Privacy Laws

by Beck Alleman, published
Credit: SeeJanePublish

online privacy laws

After numerous complaints and requests to change it, lawmakers are finally revising a 27-year-old Internet privacy law. These reevaluations are viewed as a necessity by many who believe the government needs to address growing concerns over online privacy.

A large portion of privacy laws concerning the Internet are from a 1986 privacy law called the "Electronic Communications Privacy Act." Needless to say, technology has changed substantially since then and many believe the laws surrounding it must also change.

The main problem with the 1986 privacy law is that it treats emails, instant messages, and other online correspondence as business records subject to seizure by law enforcement at any time, provided there is reasonable cause to do so.

It also regards messages older than 180 days as "discarded" and no longer private, presenting many obvious loopholes. Congress aims to fix these loopholes by reforming the ECPA.

The updated law will require federal, state, and local police to acquire a search warrant based on probable cause in order to access private email messages and similar online correspondence. For the average citizen, this simply means more privacy for things like Facebook posts, emails, and Cloud data.

One of the chief proponents of this reformation is a group called the Digital Due Process coalition, which includes big name Internet giants such as Google, Facebook, and Apple. The coalition also includes independent Internet privacy groups such as the Center for Technology & Democracy.

"The [ECPA] was a forward-looking statute when enacted in 1986... Technology has advanced dramatically since 1986, and ECPA has been outpaced," the Center for Democracy & Technology said on its website. "The statute has not undergone a significant revision since it was enacted in 1986 -- light years ago in Internet time." Tweet quote: Tweet

The issue extends beyond the scope of technology for many; even civil rights' groups are voicing their approval for reforming the law.

Chris Calabrese, a representative of the the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), explained why the need for online privacy laws is so crucial:

"As the scandal that resulted in the resignation of General Petraeus emphasizes, the contents of emails can ruin lives and careers, even (or especially) when no one is ever actually arrested or charged with a crime," Calabrese said in an online article. "The need for privacy in an individual's communications is why the Fourth Amendment guarantees an individual the right to be 'secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects.'" Tweet quote: Tweet

The Justice Department, along with many law enforcement officials, however, are not satisfied with the proposal, particularly the section that says providers must notify law enforcement in advance of plans to tell their customers that they're the target of a subpoena or warrant.

"We appreciate the changes made from the original proposal that lengthen the notification and delayed notice time periods, but we continue to have concerns about the notice provision in general," wrote the National Sheriff's Association representing many law enforcement groups in a letter. "The proposed notice provisions would create unnecessary risks to investigations and undue burdens on law enforcement agencies given the potentially large number of cases in which delays would need to be sought and renewed."

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