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The Senate just voted to undo landmark rules covering your Internet privacy

March 23, 2017

Senate lawmakers voted Thursday to repeal a historic set of rules aimed at protecting consumers’ online data from their own Internet providers, in a move that could make it easier for broadband companies to sell and share their customers’ usage information for advertising purposes.

The rules, which prohibit providers from abusing the data they gather on their customers as they browse the Web on cellphones and computers, were approved last year over objections from Republicans who argued the regulations went too far.

U.S. senators voted 50 to 48 to approve a joint resolution from Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) that would prevent the Federal Communications Commission’s privacy rules from going into effect. The resolution also would bar the FCC from ever enacting similar consumer protections. It now heads to the House.
Industry groups welcomed the vote.

“Our industry remains committed to offering services that protect the privacy and security of the personal information of our customers,” said NCTA — The Internet and Television Association, a trade group representing major cable providers. “We support this step toward reversing the FCC’s misguided approach and look forward to restoring a consistent approach to online privacy protection that consumers want and deserve.”

Consumer and privacy groups condemned the resolution.

“It is extremely disappointing that the Senate voted today to sacrifice the privacy rights of Americans in the interest of protecting the profits of major Internet companies, including Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon,” Neema Singh Giuliani, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.

The FCC didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The agency’s rules are being debated as Internet providers — no longer satisfied with simply offering Web access — race to become online advertising giants as large as Google and Facebook. To deliver consumers from one website to another, Internet providers must see and understand which online destinations their customers wish to visit, whether that’s Netflix, WebMD or PornHub.
With that data, Internet providers would like to sell targeted advertising or even share that information with third-party marketers. But the FCC’s regulations place certain limits on the type of data Internet providers can share and under what circumstances. Under the rules, consumers may forbid their providers from sharing what the FCC deems “sensitive” information, such as app usage history and mobile location data.

Opponents of the regulation argue the FCC’s definition of sensitive information is far too broad and that it creates an imbalance between what’s expected of Internet providers and what’s allowed for Web companies such as Google. Separately from Congress, critics of the measure have petitioned the FCC to reconsider letting the rules go into effect, and the agency’s new Republican leadership has partly complied. In February, President Trump’s FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, put a hold on a slice of the rules that would have forced Internet providers to better safeguard their customer data from hackers.
The congressional resolution could render unnecessary any further action by the FCC to review the rules; Flake’s measure aims to nullify the FCC’s privacy rules altogether. Republicans argue that even if the FCC’s power to make rules on Internet privacy is curtailed, state attorneys general and the Federal Trade Commission could still hold Internet providers accountable for future privacy abuses.

But Democrats say that preemptive rules are necessary to protect consumers before their information gets out against their will.

“At a time when our personal data is more vulnerable than ever, it’s baffling that Senate Republicans would eliminate the few privacy protections Americans have today,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Pallone added in a statement Thursday that he hoped his House Republican colleagues “will exercise better judgment” when it becomes their turn to vote on the resolution.

On Wednesday, Senate Democrats challenged the idea that the FTC could take responsibility for regulating Internet providers’ privacy practices.
“The Federal Trade Commission does not have the rulemaking authority in data security, even though commissioners at the FTC have asked Congress for such authority in the past,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.), the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee.

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The Fight Over Email Privacy Moves to the Senate

February 8, 2017

The House passed the Email Privacy Act (H.R. 387) yesterday, bringing us one step closer to requiring a warrant before law enforcement can access private communications and documents stored online with companies such as Google, Facebook, and Dropbox. But the fight is just beginning.

We’ve long called for pro-privacy reforms to the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), the outdated law that provides little protection for “cloud” content stored by third-party service providers. H.R. 387 would codify the Sixth Circuit’s ruling in U.S. v. Warshak, which held that the Fourth Amendment demands that the government first obtain a warrant based on probable cause before accessing emails stored with cloud service providers. While imperfect—the House-passed bill doesn’t require the government to notify users when it obtains their data from companies like Google—the reforms in the Email Privacy Act are a necessary step in the right direction.

EFF and more than 60 other privacy advocates, tech companies, and industry groups wrote to lawmakers asking them to approve the Email Privacy Act.

Now the Senate needs to take up the measure and send it to the president’s desk without weakening it. Despite the fact that the House voted 419-0 to pass the Email Privacy Act last year, it stalled in the upper chamber, where senators attempted to use the incredibly popular bill to attach additional provisions that would have harmed Internet users’ privacy.

Such “poison pill” amendments included one that would have expanded the already problematic Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, one that would have allowed the FBI to get more user information with National Security Letters, and amendments that could have made it easier for law enforcement to abuse the exemption in the law that grants access to user data in the case of emergencies without judicial oversight.

Senators need to be vigilant about fending off these kinds of amendments when the Email Privacy Act is considered in the Senate this time around.

The House’s unanimous vote on the Email Privacy Act last year and yesterday’s voice vote demonstrate bipartisan agreement that the emails in your inbox should have the same privacy protections as the papers in your desk drawer. We urge the Senate to swiftly pass the H.R. 387 to protect online content with a probable cause warrant.

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House panel considers bill to protect email privacy

December 2, 2015

WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committeebegan considering a bill Tuesday to update a nearly 30-year-old law that allows government agents to read Americans’ emails without a search warrant if the messages are at least six months old.

“When current law affords more protections for a letter in a filing cabinet than an email on a server, it’s clear our policies are outdated,” said Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash.

Under the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, federal, state and local police or regulatory agencies can order Internet service providers to turn over customers’ emails that are 180 days old or older. The law was written before email use was common and before the creation of cloud technology to store electronic communication.

The bipartisan Email Privacy Act by Reps. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., and Jared Polis, D-Colo., would require government agencies to get a search warrant to gain access to emails regardless of when the messages were written or whether or not they were opened. The bill has more than 300 co-sponsors. Similar legislation has been introduced by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also with bipartisan support, and privacy rights groups and the U.S. tech industry are pushing for the bills to get a vote soon.

“(The bill) reaffirms our commitment to protecting the privacy interests of the American people,” said House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.

However, an official of the Securities and Exchange Commission said the bill would make it more difficult for agencies that investigate civil cases to go after lawbreakers.

The bill requires government agencies to obtain a criminal search warrant to compel an Internet service provider to turn over the content of emails. The SEC and other civil law enforcement agencies such as the IRS and the Environmental Protection Agencycannot obtain criminal warrants. Instead, they typically ask a court for a subpoena to get information. The standard for obtaining a subpoena is less stringent.

“(The bill) poses significant risks to the American public by impeding the ability of the SEC and other civil law enforcement agencies to investigate and uncover financial fraud and other unlawful conduct,” said Andrew Ceresney, director of the SEC’s enforcement division.

But lawmakers questioned how much the bill would really hamper the SEC since the agency has been prosecuting cases successfully in the wake of a 2010 federal court ruling that strengthened email privacy. That ruling by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appealsin Warshak vs. United States said the government violated constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure when it obtained emails stored by Internet service providers without a warrant.

The House bill would merely codify that decision, supporters of the legislation said.

“Civil agencies can already obtain digital content with a subpoena issued directly to the target of the investigation — such as a user who sent or received emails,” said Chris Calabrese, vice president for policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

The head of law enforcement for Google, Inc. said the giant tech company supports the bill as a way to protect the privacy of its customers.

“Users expect, as they should, that documents they store online have the same Fourth Amendment protections as documents stored at home,” said Richard Salgado, Google’s director of law enforcement and information security.

In today’s world, electronic communication often contains more personal information than any physical documents the government could seize, Calabrese said.

“You would find much more sensitive documents about me in the Cloud than you would in my home,” he said.

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