Guest Post

  • April 11, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Sandra Fulton, Legislative Assistant, American Civil Liberties Union

    During the long, hard fight to bring the outdated Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) into the 21st century, advocates have run into the most unlikely of opponents: the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Yes, the SEC—the agency charged with regulating the securities industry—has brought the ECPA update to a screeching halt. Yesterday the ACLU, along with the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Tax Reform and the Center for Democracy and Technology, sent the agency a letter calling them out on their opposition.

    ECPA, enacted in 1986, is the main statute protecting our online communications from unauthorized government access. Unfortunately, as our lives have moved online the law has remained stagnant, leaving dangerous loopholes in our privacy protections. A broad coalition including privacy and consumer advocates, civil rights organizations, tech companies, and members of Congress from both parties has been pushing for an update. Strong bipartisan legislation to update the law has over 200 sponsors and is making serious headway in Congress. Even the Department of Justice—the law enforcement agency with arguably the most to lose in such an update—testified that some ECPA loopholes need to be closed.

    But the SEC is pushing back – essentially arguing that they should get to keep one of the loopholes that have developed as the law has aged. When ECPA was passed in 1986, Congress developed an elaborate framework aimed at mirroring existing constitutional protections. Newer email, less than 180 days old, was accessible only with a warrant. Based on the technology of the time, older email was assumed to be “abandoned” and was made accessible with a mere subpoena. Similarly, another category of digital records, “remote computing services,” was created for information you outsourced to another company for data processing. Seen as similar to business records, it could also be collected with a subpoena under the law.

    Fast forward to the 21st Century. Now we keep a decade of email in our inboxes and "remote computing services” has morphed into Facebook keeping all our photos or Microsoft storing our Word documents in their cloud. Suddenly the SEC can access content in way it never could before.

  • April 10, 2014
    Guest Post
    by Christopher Wolf, Director, Privacy and Information Management Practice Group, Hogan Lovells LLP; Founder and Co-Chair, Future of Privacy Forum
     
    The Snowden revelations about NSA activities have brought government access to online data into the public eye over the past year. Allegations that surveillance programs may have impacted American citizens have led to public outrage. In response, the president has promised to reform the U.S. government surveillance apparatus to “provide greater transparency to our surveillance activities and fortify the safeguards that protect the privacy of U.S. persons.”  
     
    Long before the Snowden revelations, enhancing the privacy of U.S. persons was the focus of less-visible efforts to reform the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), a law enacted well before the Internet era that allows law enforcement access to a panoply of electronic information held by third-party information service providers without first obtaining a warrant.
     
    In December 2013, more than 100,000 Americans signed an online petition calling on the Obama administration to support ECPA reform. Although a warm spring finally is emerging in Washington, D.C., the White House has remained silent as reform bills (e.g., S. 607 and H.R. 1847) remain frozen in Congress. 
     
  • April 9, 2014
    Guest Post
    by Harley Geiger, Senior Counsel and Deputy Project Director, Center for Democracy & Technology
     
    The police are at your door. They say they want to search the papers you keep in your house. What do you tell them? “Show me your warrant.”
     
    But what if the police come a-knocking at your email service provider, your online social network, or your cloud storage provider? The police say they want to search your private digital communications, which together add up to much more content than the papers you keep in your house. The service provider may demand a warrant, and the government could respond “We don’t need a warrant. Under ECPA, we only need a subpoena.”
  • April 7, 2014
    Guest Post
    by Robert N. Weiner, Litigation Partner, Arnold & Porter LLP
     
    * From 2010-2012, Mr. Weiner was Associate Deputy Attorney General at the Department of Justice, where he oversaw the defense of the Affordable Care Act. He has written and lectured extensively about the ongoing challenges to health care reform.
     
    Retired Judge Max Wright was walking across Agora Park when he spotted Professor Justin Good sitting on a bench. It had been quite a while since the old professor had held forth in his usual spot, engaging passers-by with the Socratic skills that had terrified his former law students. Max Right was not happy to see Professor Good. He seemed to prove Max wrong about something every time they met. Max looked for a detour, but Professor Good was already calling his name.
     
    Professor:   Hello, Max. Nice to see you again. It’s been a while.

    Max:           Uh, hi.

    Professor:    Are you in a hurry?

    Max:           No. I was just watching an argument in the Court of Appeals. (To himself: “Why did I say that?”)

    Professor:    Really? What case?

    Max:           Uhhh. It involves the tax subsidies for low income people to buy health insurance under Obamacare. I really have to g—

    Professor:    Tell me about it.

    Max:           I don’t, I mean, I’m not ... (sighs).

                        Okay. The law requires States to set up an insurance exchange—you know, it’s supposed to be like Travelocity for insurance.  But if the State doesn’t do it, the Secretary of HHS has to. Poor people are supposed to get a federal tax break so they can afford insurance. But here’s the problem—they only get it if they buy the insurance on an exchange established by the State. If they live in a State where the Secretary established the exchange, they’re out of luck. The Obamacare statute says in black and white, “established by the State.” But the IRS puts out this rule saying that it means “established by the federal government or the State.” There’s the federal government and there are the States. They’re not the same.   

  • April 4, 2014
    Guest Post
    by Georgina Yeomans, 2L, Columbia Law School
     
    I am very concerned about the Court’s decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, though perhaps not for the reasons you’d think. I will leave it to others to be concerned that the Court is moving toward a system in which the richest among us have significantly louder political speech than the rest of the country; I won’t even lament the irony of the Chief Justice’s opening line acknowledging that “[t]here is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders,” when juxtaposed with the Shelby County opinion from last term. I won’t comment, as Ari Berman eloquently has in The Nation, on the Court’s disturbing trend toward “More Money, Less Voting.” My concern right now is more selfish—I’m concerned because I’m a second year law student, exams are a few weeks away, and the Chief Justice has fundamentally confounded my understanding of stare decisis.
     
    In McCutcheon, the Court struck down aggregate spending limits imposed by the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA). This is a conclusion that would seem to require overruling the Court’s decision in Buckley v. Valeo upholding that very same provision. And yet the Court did not go through the “prudential and pragmatic considerations” announced in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, when deciding whether to overrule precedent. In Casey, in which the Court refused to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Court stressed the importance of precedent in our Constitutional system: “Indeed, the very concept of the rule of law under our own Constitution requires such continuity over time that a respect for precedent is, by definition, indispensable.” And yet we see none of this respect for continuity or the rule of law in the Chief Justice’s decision to override the aggregate limit holding in Buckley.
     
    Instead, the Court notes that Buckley’s holding on the issue was only three sentences long, was not “‘separately addressed at length by the parties,’” and thus “does not control here.” The Chief Justice points to two other cases in which the Court has not felt bound by what the Chief basically characterizes as sloppy decision-making: Toucey v. New York Life Ins. Co and Hohn v. United States. Yet both of those cases dealt with procedural issues that the Court stressed did not alter primary conduct—a situation thought by some to carry less precedential weight. McCutcheon’s invalidation of aggregate political contribution limits will undoubtedly alter primary conduct and thus deserves more precedential respect.