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E-Mail Privacy Change Shelved in House Netflix Vote

The U.S. House shelved efforts to update a 26-year-old e-mail privacy law as it passed a bill, backed by Netflix Inc., making it easier for people to share their video-viewing habits on Facebook Inc.’s social network.

The bill mirrored video-sharing provisions in a measure approved last month by the Senate Judiciary Committee, while stripping out a Senate proposal restricting government access to some e-mails that authorities can now obtain without a warrant. The bill passed the House on a voice vote.

The vote probably ends, for this year, efforts by privacy and civil-liberties advocates to tighten law enforcement access to e-mail messages, while giving Netflix the ability to take advantage of its U.S. partnership with Facebook, the world’s largest social network.

“We shouldn’t do privacy reform piecemeal,” said Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which supported the e-mail revision. “We can’t give priority to special interests.”

The e-mail provision would require law enforcement officials to get search warrants to obtain communications that are older than 180 days. Under the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the government can often procure those older messages without a judge’s permission.

Virginia Republican Representative Bob Goodlatte, who sponsored the video-sharing bill, said the House isn’t prepared to consider e-mail privacy before the next session of Congress.

Lame Duck

“I certainly agree that ECPA is something that Congress should look at closely to see if updates or reforms are necessary,” Goodlatte, who is set to become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in January, said in an e-mailed statement. “I do not think that it is possible to complete the thorough examination that is needed in the short amount of time we have in this lame-duck session.”

Goodlatte’s bill now must go back to the Senate, where the e-mail privacy language had been inserted into Netflix legislation by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. Jessica Brady, a spokeswoman for the Senate panel, had no immediate comment on the House bill.

Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, the Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, said last month the panel should take more time to examine law enforcement concerns about the impact of e-mail privacy changes on investigations.

‘Swift Action’

Netflix looks forward to “swift action” by the Senate to pass the bill, “giving consumers more freedom to share with friends when they want,” the company said in a statement e-mailed by spokesman Joris Evers. Facebook also hopes the Senate acts quickly to pass the measure, spokesman Andrew Noyes said in an e-mail.

Netflix, the world’s largest video-subscription service, last year announced a way for its users to share with friends on Facebook the titles of movies and television shows they’re streaming. The arrangement has taken effect in more than 40 countries and territories where Netflix operates, yet isn’t available in the U.S. because of another 1980s-era privacy law, according to Netflix.

The measure passed by the House today revises a 1988 law passed after then-Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork’s video store rental history was published in a Washington newspaper. The change would allow people to give one-time online consent to share the titles of the movies they watch.

The House bill incorporates changes made by the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, requiring that consent must be sought at least every two years and giving consumers a “clear and conspicuous” opportunity to withdraw from disclosing their videos on a case-by-case basis.

An earlier version of the video-sharing bill passed the House last December.

The bill is H.R. 6671.

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