Legislation banning federal officials from reading private emails without a warrant sailed unanimously through a key committee vote on Wednesday, following the adoption of "carefully-negotiated" amendments that reflected issues raised by law enforcement.
"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," Kansas Rep. Kevin Yoder, the lead Republican on the bill, said Wednesday.
Federal officials have claimed the authority to require Internet service providers to hand over private emails that are more than six months old, on the theory that the messages have been "abandoned" by the users. Yoder's plan to end that practice had substantial bipartisan support, but law enforcement pushback prompted another round of negotiations in the Judiciary Committee.
"The bill as introduced is opposed by virtually every law enforcement and prosecutorial association in the country," House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who helped lead the negotiations to amend the bill, said in a statement Wednesday at a hearing to mark up the legislation. "I am a strong advocate for enhancing Americans' privacy. However, reforms are needed to the Email Privacy Act to protect crime victims and minimize unintended consequences of some of the provisions in the bill."
The amended bill picked up support after negotiators stripped out a requirement that federal officials notify email account holders that their messages are being scrutinized. "It removes language requiring the government to serve a copy of the warrant on the subscriber or customer and allows the [Internet service] provider to provide a notice, which I think is very important," Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas, said during the hearing.
The negotiations meant that some privacy provisions, even those favored by the committee chairman, had to fall by the wayside. "I'd like to say a word about geolocation," Goodlatte said in his statement. "We must continue to work to ensure that we protect Americans' privacy, including ensuring sufficient protections for information that reveals the location of individuals. The committee continues to be committed to working on the geolocation issue, and we plan to hold a hearing on the issue. If the short legislative calendar does not allow for a hearing this year, we will hold such a hearing at the beginning of the new Congress."
But neither did enforcement officials get everything they wanted. Under pressure from IRS officials and investigators at the Securities and Exchange Committee, lawmakers considered exempting some federal agencies from the warrant requirement, but that failed due to bipartisan opposition. Still, the negotiators made some gestures toward the concerns of the federal investigators.
"We've worked through the bill to ensure that they can put a freeze on the account, that the account holder — if they don't respond to a subpoena — that they're responsible for the same penalties they would be if they weren't responding to a subpoena for printed documents," Yoder told the Examiner recently. "What we're trying to do, ultimately, is treat email and paper mail the same under federal law when it comes to protection."