On November 29, the Senate will consider a new bill that threatens Internet privacy rights. If it passes, government agencies will no longer need a warrant to have total access to email accounts and other forms of electronic communication.
Thus far, the bill has not received too much attention, in part because it has played out as a bit of a bait and switch. Initially, the legislation was written explicitly to strengthen email privacy by necessitating that police have probable cause and a search warrant to access citizens’ email. However, law enforcement agencies objected to the content of the bill and it was consequently postponed from its initial review date in September.
In the interim, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy has rewritten and completely overhauled the bill. The potential legislation would now counter its original intent and give the government unprecedented access to private Internet accounts.
Government agents would no longer need a judge to approve searches of private Internet content. This legislation would not only apply to emails: Facebook, Twitter, Google Docs, and just about any form of electronic messaging would also be subject to Big Brother’s watchful eye.
If the bill passes, two dozen government agencies - including the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, the National Labor Relations Board and the Postal Regulatory Commission - would achieve easy access to America’s Internet accounts. State and local police would be granted similar advantages.
One provision even stipulates that if service providers such as Google, Facebook or Twitter want to inform specific users that law enforcement is monitoring their content, they must first tell the agencies that they intend to do so. Internet users will not be notified for about two weeks after it occurs, although agencies can delay the report from being released for as long as a year. In other words, the government expects a little privacy while invading the privacy of its citizens.
Another provision states that all existing laws and practices can essentially be ignored if enforcement agencies feel the situation is an “emergency.”
Critics of the bill find it alarming that a bill designed to protect privacy is now promoting the precise opposite. “There is no good legal reason why federal regulatory agencies such as the NLRB, OSHA, SEC or FTC need to access customer information with a mere subpoena,” argues Markham Erickson, a Washington D.C. attorney.