E-Mail Privacy Change in Netflix Bill Clears Senate Panel

Authorities would have to get a search warrant to obtain older e-mails that can now be obtained without a judge’s permission if a measure approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee becomes law.

The privacy provision was attached to a measure backed by Netflix Inc. to make it easier for people to share information about their video viewing on Facebook Inc. and other social networking sites. The video part of the proposal has already passed in the U.S. House.

The e-mail provision was added by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, changing a law that in some cases lets authorities get access without warrants to messages that are more than 180 days old. The bill, H.R. 2471, was approved by the Senate committee today on a voice vote.

“Like many Americans, I am concerned about the growing and unwelcome intrusion into our private lives in cyberspace,” Leahy said.

Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said there are “issues to be addressed” before the bill gets a vote from the full Senate. The measure may make it harder for the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate insider trading, Grassley said.

The House may not finish consideration of the bill this year, Grassley said, and Leahy said the legislation would be back before both chambers next year.

It would amend a 1986 electronic communications law that Leahy said has become outdated with changing technology. Courts have taken different positions on whether a warrant is needed for older e-mails, Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, said in an interview.

Bork’s List

The ACLU is among groups that support the e-mail warrant requirement. The FBI Agents Association has expressed concern the change would hinder investigations.

The legislation also revises a 1988 video-privacy law passed after then-Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork’s video-store rental history was published in a Washington newspaper.

Netflix, the world’s largest video-subscription service, says the change is needed to let its customers share information about their video viewing with friends through its partnership with Facebook.

The two companies last year announced a way for users to link their accounts to share the titles of movies they’re streaming with friends on the social network. The partnership has taken effect in more than 40 countries and territories where Netflix operates but isn’t available in the U.S. because of the 1988 law, according to Netflix.

A provision was added to the bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee today giving consumers a “clear and conspicuous” opportunity to withdraw from disclosing their videos on a case-by-case basis. Netflix supports the change, Christopher Libertelli, the company’s head of global public policy, said in an interview.

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