The email privacy law on the books right now dates back to 1986. Forget about before the advent of Google and Yahoo, that’s about the same age as Prodigy and America Online. If you’re under the age of 40, there’s a good chance you don’t even remember those. A new email privacy law was unanimously passed by the House of Representatives in April. That means email privacy is about to get a bit of a makeover. So what does that mean for you and your Internet usage?
So what’s going to change? Basically, the government will now be required to get a warrant to look at your emails if they’re older than 180 days. Currently, they only have to get a subpoena. The new law will significantly raise the burden of proof required for the government to go snooping around in your inbox. For anyone who’s concerned about privacy or government snooping, this is a step in the right direction.
The reason a new law is needed isn’t just that technology has changed. There have also been recent developments, such as the FBI’s desire to look around in the San Bernardino shooter’s emails, that have caused Congress to act. What’s more, in an unrelated incident, Microsoft is looking into filing suit against the Justice Department. They believe that current federal use of the old statute is an unconstitutional violation of privacy. The old law has become so contentious that it appears one elegant solution is getting an entirely new law on the books without the baggage of the old.
No one is sure what’s going to happen to the bill now that it’s gotten through the House. The Senate seems reticent to act on the measure during an election year. It might languish in committee for who knows how long before it moves forward. In fact, there’s a similar bill currently in committee in the Senate, but it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
The bill wouldn’t change the fact that the government can subpoena you and your emails. However, what it would change is requiring the government to get a warrant to go around you to your email or other service provider to get your emails.
One thing is certain no matter what happens: It’s time for a new email privacy act that reflects the current realities of email, cloud storage and other developments in online technology since 1986. Even if this one languishes in committee forever or gets killed, look for something similar to make its way through the series of tubes sooner rather than later.
Nicholas Pell is a freelance writer based in Hollywood, CA. He writes about music, personal finance and technology for publications such as LA Weekly, Salon and Business Insider. He’s been online since the days of Usenet groups and bulletin board systems.