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House to Vote on Bill to Enhance Your Privacy Protections Online

by Carl Wicklander, published

This week the House of Representatives is expected to vote on a bill that its supporters say closes a legal loophole that will protect email and electronic communication users.

The legislation, HR 699, the Email Privacy Act, was introduced in 2013 by Republican US Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas. After the bill died in committee, Yoder reintroduced it along with Democrat Jared Polis in 2015.

In a press release issued when Yoder introduced the legislation to the 114th Congress, he said:

"The last time Congress updated our email privacy laws, we were two years removed from the release of the first Macintosh computer. It's time Congress modernized these outdated statues to ensure that the rights protected by the Fourth Amendment extend to Americans' email correspondence and digital storage."

The bill passed the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month. According to the schedule released by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the Email Privacy Act will receive a full vote in the House this week.

The bill serves as an amendment to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986. When passed thirty years ago, it was designed to maintain "a fair balance between the privacy expectations of citizens and the legitimate needs of law enforcement" regarding telephone conversations. However, as electronic and wireless communications have evolved over the succeeding decades, there has been need to revise the act to protect users' privacy.

If passed, HR 699 would require government officials to obtain a warrant before accessing Americans' old emails, text messages, and other electronic communications. As it stands currently, the authorities only need a subpoena, rather than a warrant, which can be issued without proof of probable cause. They can also look for this information as long as it is at least 180 days old. According to the National Law Review blog, the 1986 law also does not distinguish between content released publicly and content transmitted to private parties.

The Email Privacy Act has 314 cosponsors and generous bipartisan support: 196 Republicans and 118 Democrats.

There is also a Senate version of the bill introduced by Mike Lee of Utah. It currently has 26 cosponsors.

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