Congress is starting to rethink a 1986 law that has been a thorn in Google's side. At issue is how easy it is for governments to obtain what Google and others consider private documents and communications such as emails, private blog posts or documents saved on remote servers, "the cloud."
In January, Google publicly lamented that data requests from governments around the world are on the rise.
The firm was the only corporate witness today at a hearing on the issue held this morning by the U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations. Other witnesses during the brief hearing were from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Department of Justice and George Washington University Law School.
As it stands, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act requires government to obtain a search warrant to gather the contents of a personal email if it is 180 days or younger. When it's older, the government need only come up with a subpoena, which Google and others deem too simple a requirement. A search warrant is also necessary for law enforcement to take physical documents from a home.
Google claims the distinction is unconstitutional. "Users expect, as they should, that the documents they store online have the same Fourth Amendment protections as they do when the government wants to enter the home to seize documents stored in a desk drawer. There is no compelling policy or legal rationale for this dichotomy," stated Richard Salgado, director, law enforcement and information security at Google, in his testimony today.
He added that Google itself requires "a search warrant when law enforcement requests the contents of Gmail accounts and other services."
House Judiciary Committee Member Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R, WI) called the ECPA largely unconstitutional and outdated. Elana Tyrangiel of the DOJ agreed that the '86 law does not keep pace with how technology is used today.
The current rules have been "a drag on adoption" of Google's cloud-based services such as Gmail, YouTube and Google Docs, argued Mr. Salgado, noting that some potential users shy away from the services because governments could gain access to users' information.
Both Google and Twitter used Data Privacy Day in January to spotlight the amount of data requests from world governments. Google reported that governments made more than 21,000 user data requests in 2012, compared to around 14,000 in 2010. In that time Google has fully or partially complied with fewer requests -- 66% last year compared with 76% in 2010. Neither company, however, mentioned in those posts their own revenue-driven data collection practices.
The hearing lasted only around an hour and was intended to be part of a series to discuss updating the law.