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Will Congress Finally Pass ECPA Reform?

Last Updated on May 19, 2020, 9:58 am 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. For the last several years, Congress has seriously considered reform to rectify the deficiencies of this law that denies individuals a reasonable expectation of privacy for the content of their online communications. On January 10, 2017, Congressmen Yoder (R-KS) and Polis (D-CO) reintroduced the Email Privacy Act (H.R. 387) for the 115th Congress, a bill that unanimously passed the House of Representatives last year.

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 enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan, with a super majority of the House of Representatives co-sponsoring the bill in the last Congress, before its unanimous passage.

ARL applauds the reintroduction of the Email Privacy Act and urges Congress to move quickly to pass ECPA reform and restore Fourth Amendment protections for online communications.