A far-reaching bill that would require the government to obtain a warrant to search through people's emails and other online communications now has majority support in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Email Privacy Act, introduced by Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo) and Kevin Yoder (R-Kans.), now has 218 co-sponsors -- the number needed for the bill to pass if it is brought up for a vote in the House.
The bill (H.R. 1852) seeks to update the privacy protections for electronic communications stored by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and other third parties.
Critics have long argued that the law governing such data, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986, is woefully inadequate and outdated. They have noted that the ECPA allows law enforcement authorities and government officials to access emails and other online communications stored by third parties without a warrant.
The concerns about such access have been fueled in recent months by Edward Snowden's leaks about the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance activities. Many privacy rights advocacy groups have been vigorously pushing for changes to the ECPA.
Cloud providers and other technology vendors have been pushing for changes to how the government can ask for customer data amid signs that the Snowden revelations have scared some overseas customers away.
The proposed Email Privacy Act would amend ECPA to prohibit a third-party service provider from divulging a customer's communication records to law enforcement officials without a warrant obtained under the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure or state warrant procedures.
The Computer & Communications Industry Association, a group that has been pushing for changes to email privacy laws, was quick to laud the support for the bill in the House.
"This bill would finally offer email, social messaging and other cloud-stored data the same protection as files stored inside someone's home," CCIA president Ed Black said in a statement via email. "If the government agency wants to obtain cloud-stored data, it would need to go before a judge and get a warrant for that search."
The Digital 4th coalition, a group representing several rights advocacy groups, on Wednesday called for House leaders to bring the Email Privacy Act to a vote now that it has majority support. "The House needs to act now," the coalition said in a statement.
The ECPA was passed even before the Web was invented and does not offer any measure of protection against government snooping, the coalition noted. "Under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, Americans' emails, photos, documents and other online communications lack the Fourth Amendment protections guaranteed by our Constitution."
Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the majority support is a significant step forward for the proposed law. "What this means is that if the bill were to be brought to the floor tomorrow, it would pass," he said.
The bill offers online communications the same protections that exist currently against warrantless searches of paper mail records or of a house, he said.
"It is a relatively straightforward bill, but it is pretty surprising that it has taken this level of effort" to get this far, he said.
Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.