Email privacy update doesn't become law


President Obama signed into law Jan. 10 a bill making it easy for individuals to share their movie rental history online – a measure the Senate Judiciary Committee had hoped would also require law enforcement to obtain a warrant to examine emails and other long-term stored electronic communications, but which in the end did not.

The measured signed by Obama (H.R. 6671) clarifies that video providers (such as Netflix, which pushed for the law) can obtain consumers' written consent over the Internet to share consumer history with a third party. As a result, Netflix and other online video providers will be able to integrate social media into their services, for example allowing viewers to post on Facebook what they're watching.

The Senate Judiciary Committee amended an earlier version of the bill (H.R. 2471) to include changes to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act that would have changed that law to require law enforcement to gain a warrant before examining electronic communications older than 180 days. Currently, to gain access to those messages, law enforcement must only file a subpoena.

The committee version traveled no farther, however – whereas the House then fast-tracked a new bill focusing solely on the video sharing language, agreeing to it by voice note on Dec. 18 and sending it to the Senate, which passed it also by voice vote on Dec. 31.

Strong measures against disclosure of video rental history became law following publication by the Washington City Paper in 1987 of Supreme Court justice nominee Robert Bork's rental history from Potomac Video. Reporter Michael Dolan says on his website he obtained the records and pitched the story after Bork said he found no implicit privacy protection in the Constitution.

For more:
- go to the THOMAS page for H.R. 6671

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