April 27, 2016 | By Sophia Cope

House Advances Email Privacy Act, Setting the Stage for Vital Privacy Reform

House of Representatives Agrees That 30 Years Is Long Enough, Pushes Much-Needed Email Privacy Reform Bill to the Senate

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Email Privacy Act (H.R. 699) today, which would require the government to get a probable cause warrant from a judge before obtaining private communications and documents stored online with companies such as Google, Facebook, and Dropbox.

The bill provides a long-overdue update to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), first passed in 1986. The bill also codifies the Sixth Circuit’s ruling in U.S. v. Warshak, which held that the Fourth Amendment demands that the government first obtain a warrant before accessing emails stored with cloud service providers.

The House vote is historic, given that H.R. 699 has an amazing 315 cosponsors, almost three quarters of the entire House. The House voted unanimously, following a unanimous vote by the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month.

EFF has pushed for an update to ECPA for over six years as part of the Digital Due Process Coalition, which is comprised of civil society groups and technology companies. Today’s win is also the result of efforts by EFF supporters across the country, who have kept a steady drumbeat of pressure on Congress to reform ECPA.

While we applaud the passage of H.R. 699, the bill isn’t perfect. In particular, the Email Privacy Act doesn’t require the government to notify users when it seeks their online data from service providers, a vital safeguard ensuring users can obtain legal counsel to fight for their rights. However, companies may continue to provide notice to users of government requests—prior to compliance—something many companies commit to in our annual Who Has Your Back report.

The government should also be required to obtain a warrant when demanding a person’s geolocation data. And if the government does obtain any communications data in violation of the law, courts should have the ability to suppress that evidence in criminal prosecutions.

Despite these drawbacks, H.R. 699 is a win for user privacy. We thank the bill’s chief sponsors, Reps. Yoder (R-KS), Polis (D-CO), and Graves (R-GA), and House Majority Leader McCarthy (R-CA) for scheduling today’s vote. We urge the Senate to pass the Email Privacy Act without any weakening amendments before the 114th Congress ends in January. Please contact your Senators and demand their support for strong privacy protections for your online data!


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