/// Why Netflix Getting What It Wants From Congress Means Your Email Will Get Warrant Protection
Good news today for those people worried about the government snooping in their inboxes. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill Thursday that would require the feds and the po-po to get a warrant before they can get access to your email. That means getting a judge involved, and it would be an improvement from the current state of affairs. As David Kravets at Wired ably explains, the law governing your email is outdated, giving little protection to email in the cloud after it’s been there for 6 months. When the Electronic Communications Privacy Act was first passed in 1986, after all, email that sat around in transit for that long was seen as being “abandoned” because you hadn’t downloaded it to your computer.
“This is an important gain for privacy. We are very happy that the committee voted that all electronic content like emails, photos and other communications held by companies like Google and Facebook should be protected with a search warrant,” said Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in a statement. “We believe law enforcement should use the same standard to search your inbox that they do to search your home.”
Privacy advocates have been wishing and praying and hoping for email privacy reform to happen for years now. The battle is far from over — the bill still needs to get the attention and approval of the House and Senate — but it’s a big step forward. How did it finally happen?
Senator Patrick Leahy tacked the amendment updating ECPA on to another bill that’s been fast-tracked this year thanks in part to the efforts of Netflix and Facebook. The ECPA amendment is attached to H.R. 2471, a bill to amend yet another piece of privacy legislation, the Video Privacy Protection Act. This is an act that was passed to protect the privacy of your video rental records, brought about after an enterprising Washington City Paper reporter shocked lawmakers by getting and publishing Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork’s Blockbuster rentals. The knee-jerk bill forbids video providers from disclosing what you watch; they have to get your explicit consent every time they want to share that info.
This has been a thorn in the side for Netflix, preventing the video giant from taking advantage of Facebook’s “frictionless sharing.” So Netflix and Facebook and others have been pushing Congress to change the law so that Netflix can help your friends spam your newsfeed with their movie selections. Despite some criticism from privacy advocates who are concerned that it will “reduc[e] consumer control over another category of sensitive, personal information,” lawmakers have seemed open to making the change so that you can grant a company the right to share your watching habits in one fell swoop as you already can with your reading and listening habits. (Yes, talking about you, Washington Post Social Reader and Spotify users.)
During the hearing today, Senator Diane Feinstein added an amendment to the VPPA legislation to allow users to retain some control. Companies would only be granted a two-year right to share and broadcast your movie habits; after two years, they’ll have to ask for consumer consent again.
Seeing the momentum the VPPA update had, Leahy tacked the ECPA reform amendment onto it. Little did Leahy know, extra momentum would come in the form of the recent David Petraeus scandal and the questionable investigation that allowed FBI agents to get access to his sexy emails with, as far as we currently know, little judicial oversight.
So, if Congress passes the bill, you’ll wind up losing a little movie rental privacy in exchange for better email protection. When the film about the Petraeus email scandal inevitably comes out, I hope you’ll appreciate the irony when you watch it on Netflix and the fact that you did so pops up on your Facebook Timeline.