Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Charles Grassley (R-IA) postponed a vote on a privacy bill after a flurry of amendments threatened to weaken the bill's intent. The original version of the Email Privacy Act would have required law enforcement authorities to obtain a warrant to access emails and other digital communications.
The bill aims to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), a law that was passed in 1986. The House Judiciary Committee passed the email privacy legislation last month, and it was unanimously approved by the House later in the month.
Speaking at as Senate meeting on Thursday, Grassley voiced his disappointment in the latest Amendments. “Most folks agree that given the way Americans use email today, it hardly makes sense that the privacy protections for an email should turn on whether it's more than 180 days old, or whether it's been opened,” he said. “The privacy of Americans must be protected, and that privacy simply shouldn't depend on an email's age at all.”
Privacy advocates oppose the amendments, arguing that the amendments are unnecessary and would serve to weaken the bill. “These amendments are unnecessary because ECPA (18 U.S.C. § 2702) already permits service providers to hand over content or other records in an ‘emergency involving danger of death or serious physical injury to any person,'” wrote the Electronic Frontier Foundation's (EFF) Staff Attorney Sophia Cope and Civil Liberties Legislative Lead Mark Jaycox. “And it is beneficial for users that service providers may withhold data when they believe that the government is fraudulently using the emergency exception to bypass due process requirements.”
“The Email Privacy Act as amended by the House Judiciary Committee hits the sweet spot for what protections Republicans and Democrats agree these communications deserve,” said the Information Technology Industry Council's (ITI) senior vice president for government affairs Andy Halataei, in a statement. “As the Senate Judiciary Committee begins their work tomorrow, we urge Senators to avoid harmful amendments that will upset the delicate balance achieved during the House process and could prevent the bill from reaching the president's desk.”