Google and Microsoft have found something they can agree on: Privacy in electronic communications. The rivals will put down their competitive swords long enough to collaborate with a cadre of privacy groups, think tanks, academics and other tech companies.
The coalition, dubbed Digital Due Process, will work to update a key federal law that defines the rules for government access to e-mail and private files stored in the cloud. The members cited the need to preserve traditional privacy rights in the face of technological change, while also ensuring that law-enforcement agencies can carry out investigations and the industry has the clarity needed to innovate.
"Citizens need government action to ensure that as more information moves from the desktop to the cloud, the country retains the traditional balance of privacy vis-à-vis the state," said Mike Hintze, associate general counsel at Microsoft. "Many Americans take for granted the protections of the Bill of Rights that prevent the government from coming into people's homes without a valid search warrant. The rise of cloud computing should not diminish these privacy safeguards."
Tech Has Changed, But the Law Has Not
Jim Dempsey, vice president for public policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology, which has led the coalition effort, put it this way: "Technology has changed dramatically in the last 20 years, but the law has not."
"The traditional standard for the government to search your home or office and read your mail or seize your personal papers is a judicial warrant," Dempsey said. "The law needs to be clear that the same standard applies to e-mail and documents stored with a service provider, while at the same time be flexible enough to meet law-enforcement needs."
In an effort to set a consistent standard that lines up with traditional rules for law-enforcement access in the brick-and-mortar world, the coalition is focusing on making recommendations for the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. ECPA was passed in 1986 and hasn't seen significant updates since it first established standards for government access to e-mail and other electronic communications in criminal investigations.
"Reform will only happen if we can strike the right balance. We have begun discussing our principles with the Department of Justice and others," Dempsey said. "We look forward to the dialogue." The group is reaching out to government officials and expects ongoing talks with law-enforcement agencies to develop a consensus on updates to the law.
A Strong Coalition
Other Digital Due Process members include AOL, the Computer and Communications Industry Association, eBay, Integra Telecom, Intel, Microsoft, NetCoalition and Salesforce.com. The coalition is already seeing cooperation from the U.S. government.
"Vast transformation, including the growth of the Internet, has occurred in electronic communications since the enactment of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act in 1986," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.).
"During the same period, the ability to monitor communication has also grown tremendously. As technology moves forward, it is clearly necessary for industry, as well as all Americans, to adjust and clarify the law. Our committee plans to hold hearings on this important issue this spring."