Privacy Protection Urged for E-Mail

WASHINGTON -- Your e-mail could gain privacy protection by law, under a proposal by four members of Congress reacting to a June court ruling that allows ISPs to snoop in digital correspondence.

Representative Jay Inslee, a Washington Democrat, and three other congressmembers introduced the E-mail Privacy Act of 2004 on Thursday. The bill would make e-mail subject to federal wiretap law that requires a court order for real-time interception of communications. The bill would also prohibit private ISPs from accessing subscriber e-mail beyond what is necessary to provide service.

Spurred by Court

Inslee introduced the bill following a June 29 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. The court ruled that the vice president of an ISP couldn't be charged with violating federal wiretapping laws for snooping on e-mail sent to his customers, because the federal Wiretap Act does not prohibit ISPs from reading e-mail residing on their servers.

The court's decision affirmed a district court ruling dismissing a criminal wiretap charge against Bradford C. Councilman, who was vice president of Interloc, a rare book listing service, in 1998. Interloc, since acquired by another company, provided an e-mail service to book dealers who were its customers. In January 1998, Councilman told employees to write computer code to read incoming e-mail messages from rival book dealer Amazon.com.

Privacy advocates decried the ruling, saying an e-mail message that resides on an ISP's server for fractions of a second should enjoy the same privacy protections as telephone conversations. The court ruling could open e-mail up to increased spying by ISPs and law enforcement, privacy advocates say.

Consistency Sought

Sponsors of the bill say the law should treat e-mail the same as telephone calls.

"The American people are no longer confident that the law protects their right to communicate privately via e-mail or other Internet communications, and Congress will act to modernize America's privacy laws if the courts fail to maintain a strong privacy standard," Inslee says in a statement.

Co-sponsors of the bill are Roscoe Bartlett, a Maryland Republican; Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican; and William Delahunt, a Massachusetts Democrat.

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