How Netflix’s lobbying dollars could lead to improved email privacy in the United States

How Netflix’s lobbying dollars could lead to improved email privacy in the United States

It’s not well known, but here in the United States, for the police to get their hands on your personal email, no warrant is required. Yes, your email really isn’t very secure.

Here’s how it works: As provided for in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), only an administrative subpoena is required to read email from a private citizen that is over 180 days old. To acquire approval to read those emails, all the police must do, in the words of The Hill, is “swear an email is relevant to an investigation.” Presto, you have a subpoena.

How did this come about? The ECPA was put together in the late eighties, back before cheap storage or the complete public penetration of email. As Ars Techinca notes, the bill was just written for a different time:

[I]t was presumed that if you hadn’t actually bothered to download your e-mail, it could be considered “abandoned” after 180 days.

In short, the ECPA is outdated, and needs a firm refresh. Enter Senator Patrick Leahy who is now pushing a bill that will re-haul the ECPA, creating protections for not just email, but other forms of digital communications as well. A full warrant would be required under Sen. Leahy’s proposed changes.

However, not all are enthused about the idea of erecting walls between police and information that could be helpful with their work. This is a very simple, easy to grok tradeoff between privacy and potential security. Senator Chuck Grassley, for one, has expressed concern about the impact of the proposed changes could negatively impact safety tasks. Thus, for Sen. Leahy to pass the changes, he’s going to need a chariot, to prevent a filibuster. Enter, Netflix.


Netflix has a large policy priority in Washington: to allow for consumers to share their video watching history. Picture your Facebook feed, where in the upper right corner you see the stream of songs that you friends are listening to. Why isn’t content consumed on Netflix displayed in the same way? It’s illegal, as it turns out.

From TNW’s previous reporting:

Yes, as it turns out, thanks to the Video Privacy Protection Act, you can’t share a person’s video watching history without, wait for it, written consent. That means that you can’t share your Netflix history the same way you broadcast your love of Carly Rae Jepsen.

Netflix wants this changed, for transparent reasons, and has spent in the six figure range (that’s and old count) lobbying on the issue. The House has already passed a bill that changes the policy. In the Senate, there was an amendment attached to the leading cybersecurity bill to do the same. However, that bill went full kaput and is on ice at least until calendar 2013.

And thus the changes that Netflix lusts after have stalled. However, Leahy has a plan. He’s attaching his email and digital communication bill to the House bill, in the Senate. Hillicon Valley, take us home:

Leahy introduced a bill last year to update ECPA, but it never came up for a vote. His latest attempt at revising the law is to attach his legislation to a separate video privacy bill that has already passed the House.

The key here is that the Republican Congressional contingent view new regulation as anathema. However, tying the loosening of the one rule, the video sharing issue, to the addition of new rules in regards to digital communication privacy, could mean that what Leahy has in mind might pass.

Thus, Netflix’s push for changes to the video history sharing history could lead to their being a conduit for your email becoming more secure. And people say that politics is weird.

Top Image Credit: Zoe Rudisill

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