With Unanimous Passage through the House, the Email Privacy Act will Modernize Online Data Privacy

Back in the 1980s, everyone was walking around with their perms and mullets, Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson were playing sold out concerts, and people still couldn’t believe that Darth Vader was Luke’s father (spoilers). Clearly, things have changed a lot since then, yet, curiously, privacy standards regarding emails have not. While email certainly wasn’t a dominant form of communication back in the 80’s, the computer revolution that our society has undergone makes online data and information more valuable than ever. It’s time for our privacy standards, then, to reflect the new and ever-more-digitized world we live in.

The Email Privacy Act, introduced by Representative Kevin Yoder, plans on doing just that, updating email privacy standards previously set by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986. Under the ECPA, law enforcement agencies could search emails and any other online communication older than 180 days without a warrant. All that was needed was a subpoena, and one’s entire email archive could be opened up to be searched. The Email Privacy Act would close this loophole in the ECPA, requiring federal officials to obtain a warrant before reviewing any online communication, regardless of how old that information is. On the 27th, this bill passed unanimously in the House, with a vote of 419 to 0, demonstrating that this loophole fix was long overdue.

Previously, more than 300 House members had signed on as co-sponsors, making the Email Privacy Act one of the most popular bills in Congress. In the Senate, though, there is expected to be more difficulty, as the Federal Trade Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission have argued against the bill, claiming that it will prevent the two agencies from combating white-collar crime. Even so, a number of senators, including Senator Mike Lee, have demonstrated a commitment to seeing the bill through, further demonstrating the strength this bill has.

Despite all of this popularity, though, there are still several issues at hand that aren’t fully addressed by the bill. In trying to compromise with the FTC and SEC, language was included in the bill that allows online companies not to inform their users when their data is being searched with a warrant. Despite the other strengths of the bill, many are coming out against this specific clause, arguing that the users have a right to know when their data is being accessed. On this issue, Microsoft has filed a court case against the US government for the right to tell their customers when the data is being searched, citing a violation of the US Constitution and the Fourth Amendment.

Despite these shortcomings, the Email Privacy Act is an incredibly valuable set of reforms that will modernize email privacy standards. As Representative Yoder said at the passage of the bill through the House Judiciary Committee, "today is a great day for not only the Fourth Amendment advocates who have fought long and hard to move the Email Privacy Act, but also for all Americans, who are one step closer to having private and secure digital communications." With enough public and legislative support, the Email Privacy Act will become law, leaving the days of 1980s privacy standards behind.