Quarter-Century-Old Digital Privacy Law Up for Revision

The government is re-examining how laws in the physical world should translate to the digital world. Currently, this is guided by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986, yet major changes in technology raise questions the ECPA is unable to address.

Governing the Web and digital communications is extremely difficult, as any law will have a rippling affect. Amending the ECPA could affect not only law enforcement access to information, but also digital privacy, innovation, and cybersecurity. The Senate Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing on amending the ECPA on April 6.

“Determining how best to bring this technology law into the digital age could be one of Congress’s greatest challenges,” said Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, in a Senate webcast.

The ECPA sets laws on protecting digital privacy and governs law enforcement access to digital communications. Having helped write the act, Leahy stated it “has become outdated by vast technological advances,” and while “we know it has to be updated, the difficult part is exactly how do we do it.”

There is currently no proposed legislation on EPCA. Leahy, however, laid down several standards that should act as its core: it should balance privacy rights, public safety, and security; while also encouraging American innovation.

When it all boils down, the world is still figuring out how laws in the physical world should translate to the digital realm. The Internet has only been around for close to 20 years, yet its rapid global adoption has outrun current laws.

Until recently, the Internet was comparable to the Wild West—lawless and ripe with outlaws, yet offering a goldmine for innovation. How to govern it, and how deep this governance should run, are under heavy debate.

Rights groups largely agree the quarter-century-old EPCA needs updating, yet have voiced concern over what revisions may entail.

“Major decisions regarding the future architecture of cloud computing are being made right now,” states an open letter to Leahy from nine rights organizations and think tanks. Among them are the Washington Policy Center, FreedomWorks, and the Center for Financial Privacy and Human Rights.

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