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ARL Urges Congress to Pass ECPA Reform

Last Updated on April 26, 2016, 12:47 pm ET

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) is a law from 1986 governing privacy for online communications and has long been in need of reform. Congress has the opportunity to rectify the deficiencies of this law that denies individuals a reasonable expectation of privacy for the content of their online communications.

ECPA was written in an era in which few individuals owned computers, most did not use e-mail, services like Facebook did not exist, and “the cloud” had not yet transformed the way people communicate and work. It reflects a poor understanding of the digital age and has clearly not kept pace with evolving technologies. ECPA allows the government to seize online documents and communications older than 180 days without a warrant, leading to an absurdity that grants greater protection to hard copy documents than to digital communications.

The Email Privacy Act would rectify this absurdity and restore Fourth Amendment protections to the digital world by requiring a warrant for content, just as a warrant would be required for a copy of a document stored in a file cabinet. The bill has overwhelming bipartisan support with 314 cosponsors, a super majority of the House of Representatives. It was passed unanimously by the House Judiciary Committee on April 13, 2016. This support demonstrates a clear recognition that ECPA is outdated and most be reformed to reflect the way people communicate in the digital age.

While the bill as passed by the House Judiciary Committee is not perfect, it is an important step forward and includes the critical warrant for content standard. ARL calls on the House of Representatives to pass the Email Privacy Act and protect privacy in the digital age.