Google Inc. (GOOG), which says it gets about 1,400 requests a month from U.S. authorities for users’ e- mails and documents, is organizing an effort to press for limits on government access to digital communications.
The company has been talking to advocacy groups and companies about joining a lobbying effort to change the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, said Chris Gaither, a Google spokesman. He declined to elaborate.
“Given the realities of how people live and where things are going in the digital world, it’s an important time for government to act” to update the law, David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, said in an interview. “It’s a bipartisan issue and I think the momentum is going to build because citizens are expecting this.”
Google officials say changes in the law are needed to prevent law enforcement from obtaining certain e-mails and other content without search warrants, and to give documents stored on cloud services the same legal protections as paper documents stored in a desk drawer. Cloud services, which didn’t exist when the privacy law was passed, let users store and process data on remote servers via the Internet.
Spending on public cloud services is expected to reach $100 billion globally by 2016, from $40 billion last year, according to technology research firm IDC.
Last year, the owner of the world’s largest search engine helped lead an Internet protest movement that derailed anti- piracy legislation in both houses of Congress. It began drawing attention to the privacy law last week, disclosing that more than two-thirds of 8,438 requests for user data it received from U.S. authorities in the second half of last year took place without a search warrant.
The privacy law sets out how law enforcement can get access to e-mails and other forms of digital communication. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and one of law’s original architects, said it’s been made outdated by technology advances and expanded government surveillance powers.
Leahy’s committee, over the objections of law enforcement groups, passed a proposal in November requiring government officials to get a search warrant to obtain e-mails and other communications regardless of their age.
That eliminated a provision in the law, written at a time e-mail was rarely stored by service providers, allowing authorities to obtain messages more than 180 days old with only a subpoena.
Leahy attached the change to a measure backed by Netflix Inc. (NFLX) to allow online sharing of video-rental information. The language was stripped out before the Netflix bill passed both chambers of Congress in December and was signed by President Barack Obama.
The senator, in a Jan. 16 speech, said he’ll reintroduce electronic-privacy legislation this year. He said he stayed on as judiciary committee chairman to continue that effort.
Groups representing federal, state and local law enforcement officers say Leahy’s proposal could impede investigations.
“It changed the rules and operating procedures without conferring any advantages,” said Konrad Motyka, president of the FBI Agents Association, an Alexandria, Virginia-based group representing 12,000 current and former FBI special agents. “Don’t just make our jobs more difficult.”
Motyka said any move to increase the legal standard should be paired with measures to aid law enforcement, such as requiring companies to respond to warrants within a specified period of time, and making exceptions for cases of child abuse, violent crimes and terrorism.
The U.S. Justice Department provided “technical assistance” on Leahy’s bill, including “examples of problems that would be created for the executive branch in order to comply with legislative mandates,” Beth Levine, a spokeswoman for Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, the Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, said in an e-mail.
Tracy Schmaler, a Justice Department spokeswoman, didn’t respond to a phone call and e-mail requesting comment.
Google is part of an existing coalition, called Digital Due Process, formed in 2010 to seek changes to the privacy law. The coalition cuts across political ideology, with members including the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans for Tax Reform, the anti-tax group led by Grover Norquist. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business lobby, joined last month.
“It’s critical that we start to have the same rights in the online world that we do in the offline world,” Chris Calabrese, ACLU legislative counsel, said in an interview. A paper letter has more protection against government searches than an older e-mail under current law, he said.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, has said Congress should look at the privacy law, while saying he hasn’t committed to specific changes. He said he expects to hold a hearing on the law this year.
Goodlatte, who sponsored the Netflix bill, said his willingness to work on the privacy law helped convince Leahy to get the video-sharing measure passed and “not hold it hostage” to broader privacy changes.
Leahy and Goodlatte backed the anti-piracy bills in Congress that Google opposed and helped defeat last January. Google said the measures would lead to online censorship and chill innovation.
Google spent $16.5 million on lobbying last year, up from $9.7 million in 2011, according to Senate lobbying disclosures. Google’s political action committee gave $9,500 to Goodlatte during the 2012 election.
The U.S. made the most requests for Google user information among governments in the second half of 2012, according to the company’s transparency report released Jan. 23. Google is posting additional information for users today about what kinds of data it discloses to U.S. agencies from its Gmail, YouTube, Google Voice and Blogger services under ECPA legal processes.
While the law “seems to allow” the government to force service providers to turn over some digital content with a subpoena or court order, Google requires a search warrant before disclosing e-mail text, private videos or blog posts, and voicemail messages, according to a company fact sheet.
Google will release information other than content, such as user registration data and Internet-protocol addresses, under subpoenas or court orders, the company said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Eric Engleman in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at firstname.lastname@example.org