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Senate Ponders Email Search Warrants, Netflix Facebook Sharing

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By Andrew Lu on November 30, 2012 10:21 AM

A Senate panel has voted to revise laws that require search warrants for email accounts and prohibit the sharing of movie-viewing data, which would clear the way for Netflix to integrate with Facebook.

Interestingly, the Senate Judiciary Committee's vote to revise the two laws would actually increase electronic privacy protections with respect to one issue, while decreasing protections with the other.

Currently, the federal Video Privacy Protection Act bars movie-rental companies from sharing customers' video viewing records without their express written consent, reports MediaPost. The law has been a challenge to companies like Netflix and Facebook, which would like users to share their viewing history via social media. Right now it's unclear whether individuals have to give consent on a movie-by-movie basis or whether they can simply give consent once to disclose all movie data at once.

With the revised law, consumers would be able to give consent in advance to the disclosure of their viewing histories, making it unnecessary for companies to receive consent for each individual movie, reports MediaPost. Netflix had lobbied for the revision given its attempts to integrate with Facebook and its fears over litigation with the uncertainty in the current law.

Along with the sharing of movie-viewing data, the Senate panel also took a look at the laws affecting email search warrants. The panel proposed to overhaul the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act by strengthening it and requiring that law enforcement authorities obtain search warrants before accessing email and other data stored in the cloud.

Under current law, officials only need a search warrant to search email messages in storage for less than 180 days old, according to MediaPost. They can access older emails with subpoenas, which can be easier to get.

The email search warrant issue has gained traction in the wake of ex-CIA Director David Petraeus' resignation, which involved an FBI investigation into his personal email account.

The Senate Judiciary Committee's action is just the first step, however. The proposed revisions still need to be debated by the full Senate before they continue through the legislative process. Senate debate is expected next year.

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