- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 28, 2016

With the U.S. House of Representatives’ unanimous approval of a bill that would prohibit law enforcement from obtaining citizens’ private emails without a warrant, the pressure is on for the Senate to take up the legislation.

But the day after a 419-0 vote in favor of the bill, a key senator has indicated that the proposal’s path forward may face an uphill climb.

“Members of this committee on both sides of the aisle have expressed concerns about the details of this reform, and whether it’s balanced to reflect issues raised by law enforcement,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, on Thursday.

The Email Privacy Act would raise the legal hurdle for police investigators seeking access to email users’ data. Under current law, officials only need a subpoena, which requires less judicial oversight than a warrant, when they ask a technology company to hand over a customer’s emails that are more than 180 days old.

Supporters said the bill would bring modern-day protections to customers’ privacy rights by closing a loophole in the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a law written well before the advent of Web-based email such as Gmail or Yahoo allowed users a way to store communications in the virtual “cloud” rather than on their computers.

Two lead co-sponsors of similar legislation in the Senate are urging colleagues to approve the proposal, which currently has 26 co-sponsors.

“It is that rare bill that garners support from the full range of the political spectrum, and that can become law even in an election year,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat, and Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, in a joint statement issued Wednesday. “Now that the House has passed this bill by a vote of 419-0, it is time for the Senate to act. We urge the Senate to take up and pass this bipartisan, common-sense legislation without delay.”

Mr. Grassley gave no timeline for taking up the bill in the Judiciary Committee. He noted Thursday that he believes the underlying Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 that would be modified by the bill is outdated and should be updated to better protect privacy.

But he indicated that he intends to work through questions that stakeholders, including law enforcement, have raised about the bill.

“For example, if a warrant’s required to obtain email, should the constitutionally-recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement — such as the email owner’s consent — be fully available for law enforcement as well?” Mr. Grassley said. “I plan on taking a close look at the bill that passed the House, and talking with interested stakeholders and members of this committee to try to find a path forward for ECPA reform here in the Senate.”

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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