Google, Yahoo: Amendment Would Weaken Surveillance Protections

Computer companies, civil society groups and others say an amendment to a bill revising the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) would allow for government inspection of IP addresses, routing information and more without a probable cause warrant.

They say the amendment, offered up by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), would "expand the categories of records, known as Electronic Communication Transactional Records (ECTRs), that the FBI can obtain using administrative subpoenas called NSLs, which do not require probable cause."

That, they add, would "dramatically" increase government access to online data, not simply fix a "typo" in the law.

The opposition to the amendment, as well as to similar language reportedly included in a Defense Budget bill, came in a letter to senators in advance of a planned June 9 markup in the Senate Judiciary Committee of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act Amendments Act.

A version of the bill, which would boost protections of information stored in the cloud, has already passed the House, but new amendments being offered up by Republicans, including the one targeted in the letter, could undo the compromise House bill.

"Given the sensitive nature of the information that could be swept up under the proposed expansion, and the documented past abuses of the underlying NSL statute, we urge the Senate to remove this provision from the Intelligence Authorization bill and oppose efforts to include such language in the ECPA reform bill, which has never included the proposed NSL expansion," the groups said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee two weeks ago held over consideration of the bill after the Republican amendments were offered up.

The E-Mail Privacy Act passed unanimously in the House back in April, and supporters were hoping for clean passage in the Senate as well.

The baseline bill updates ECPA to require the government to get a probable cause criminal warrant to access emails, social media posts and other online content stored in the cloud by internet service providers and other email service providers, like Google. In a nod to the longevity of cloud storage, it eliminates the 180-day sunset on stored communications. Previously a warrant was not required for communications stored beyond 180 days.

During a business meeting to mark up a Senate version May 26, committee chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) agreed to hold over the bill rather than press the issue with a vote, pointing out that the bill's sponsors had asked that it be held over.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.