House votes to amend Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

House Unanimously Passes Bill to Safeguard Email Privacy

House Unanimously Passes Bill to Safeguard Email Privacy

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
April 27 2016 5:36 PM

House Unanimously Passes Bill to Safeguard Email Privacy

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Currently, the government can request old digital communications without a warrant.

Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 is from, well, the ‘80s. So naturally it wasn’t written with the current digital climate in mind. As a result, it allows for some things that have become problematic, like warrantless government access to old emails stored on a server. Not good.

On Wednesday, though, the House indicated that it understands the ECPA’s current Fourth Amendment issues by voting unanimously to amend the law. The new Email Privacy Act would also protect other types of digital communications stored in the cloud like instant messages and texts.

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With Congress, change often takes years, and many states like California, Texas, Utah, and Maine already have digital privacy laws that have essentially been acting as stopgaps. Though the bill must pass the Senate and reach the president before it can be enacted, but the House’s 419–0 vote will hopefully give it some sway.

The bill had bipartisan support and was written by Patrick Leahy, D–Vermont, and Mike Lee, R–Utah. In an effort to bolster the bill’s momentum, they told Reuters on Wednesday that the vote was “a historic step toward updating our privacy laws for the digital age.”

Some don’t think the bill goes far enough, though. Mike Godwin wrote for Slate in September, “If federal legislators truly want to bring the ECPA up to date, they shouldn’t stop with updating a statute that was flawed even at its passage in 1986. Instead, they should revisit the ECPA’s constitutional roots.”

Hopefully small victories are still better than nothing.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.