On Digital Privacy, Congress’ Offer Is This: Nothing

Written by Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at the Cato Institute. Posted with permission from Cato @ Liberty.

It had the makings of a shockingly reasonable legislative bargain: Two outdated federal privacy statutes would be reformed together, removing some unnecessarily stringent restrictions on sharing video records while finally imposing a clear warrant requirement for government searches of e-mail and other private files stored in the “cloud.” Then Congress, perhaps in homage to Darth Vader, decided to alter the deal: A bill weakening the Video Privacy Protection Act of 1988 has been sent to the president for his signature, but without the corresponding badly-needed reforms to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986.

On the merits, the changes to the Video Privacy Protection Act actually make sense. Passed in the wake of Robert Bork’s unsuccessful Supreme Court confirmation hearings, during which a newspaper published a list of videos rented by the nominee, the VPPA barred any disclosure of video rental records without the explicit and specific consent of the customer on each and every occasion. That seemed reasonable enough at the time, but has proved an annoyance to video streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, which would like to make it easy for users to automatically post the movies and TV shows they’ve watched to social media services like Twitter or Facebook without having to click an extra “I consent” box every time—something that’s not required when users similarly share the music they’re listening to on services like Spotify or Pandora. So those companies wanted to let users give up-front, blanket consent for automatic sharing of videos.

Only the most hardcore privacy watchdogs had a serious substantive problem with such a change, but many nevertheless disliked the idea of diluting one of the stronger privacy statutes on the books when, in so many other areas, changing technologies had rendered existing privacy protections far too weak. Perhaps the most glaring example of this was the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which established a confusing crazy-quilt of standards for government searches of remotely stored e-mail and other files, often allowing them to be obtained without a search warrant—standards that several appeals courts have already held to fall short of what the Fourth Amendment requires.

So Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT) had proposed an eminently logical compromise: Bundle together updates to the two statutes, easing the excessively stringent privacy rules for video records while simultaneously requiring the government to obtain a probable cause search warrant in order to look through a person’s e-mail and cloud-stored files, just as they must when they search a personal computer or wiretap a phone conversation. The bundling ensured that privacy advocates—even the hardcore ones who disapproved of the change to the video privacy law—wouldn’t raise too much fuss about it. Few expected Leahy’s package, which had been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, to be acted on until the next session of Congress.

Then came the Vader move: The House of Representatives passed its own bill amending the VPPA, but without the provisions enhancing protections for e-mail, and that legislation was quickly approved by the House. Again, this is not a bad thing in itself. But it’s a disturbing sign that, as technology changes, Congress is willing to water down privacy protections that have been rendered unnecessary or overly restrictive, but not to strengthen them even when they’ve clearly fallen badly out of sync with the way Americans communicate in the 21st century.

 


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