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Oft-delayed Email Privacy Act is back for another go-round with Congress

The Email Privacy Act, a law that would prohibit government searches of emails without a warrant, has been reintroduced to Congress after many delays.

The bipartisan law addresses a loophole in the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). The much-criticized 1986 law allowed law enforcement to search emails and electronic communications like Dropbox files without a warrant as long as the communications are more than 180 days old. The proposed law will require a warrant regardless of how old the data is.

“This session, Congress needs to close this loophole and extend fundamental privacy protections to electronic communications,” said Kate Tummarello of digital rights nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). She added that lawmakers must ignore any opposition to the bill that calls for certain agencies to be exempt from the law on warrants.

Representatives Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., and Jared Polis, D-Colo., saw their bill pass the House unanimously last year with a vote of 419-0. It hit roadblocks when The House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., despite supporting the “core” of the bill, did not push it any further in 2016. Yoder and Polis are hoping that reintroducing the proposed law again will be more successful.

Per the law, it states that all Americans have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” with their emails and the government must have probable cause to obtain a warrant.

The Email Privacy Act has received support and backing from groups like EFF but also think tanks like the Center for Democracy and Technology, which called it “common sense” legislation that both sides of the House can agree on.

“Representatives Yoder and Polis have worked tirelessly to craft a measure which passed the House unanimously last Congress. This year we urge rapid passage by Congress and the president,” said Chris Calabrese, the think tank’s vice president of policy.

The Security and Exchange Commission was one of the opponents to the law, claiming that the rules would inhibit the SEC from obtaining digital content in investigations.

Things will of course need to move fast if the law’s supporters want to get it passed and signed by President Barack Obama before he leaves office later this month. President-elect Donald Trump may take a different stance on the bill that could see it changed significantly.

“It’s simple, in 2017 if the federal government wants to access Americans’ digital content, it must get a warrant,” said Yoder in support of the law.