Fury erupts over Sen. Patrick Leahy’s bill on email privacy; Update: Leahy scraps bill?

Senate Democrat Patrick Leahy has opened himself up to a firestorm of criticism for a proposal that critics say would allow the widespread surveillance of online communications — including email, Facebook, Google Docs, and Twitter DMs — to 22 federal agencies without a warrant.

Via CNET:

A Senate proposal touted as protecting Americans’ e-mail privacy has been quietly rewritten, giving government agencies more surveillance power than they possess under current law.

CNET has learned that Patrick Leahy, the influential Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, has dramatically reshaped his legislation in response to law enforcement concerns. A vote on his bill, which now authorizes warrantless access to Americans’ e-mail, is scheduled for next week.

In a rare show of bipartisanship, tweeters on the right and left have joined together to denounce what the proposal, which they consider an affront to First and Fourth Amendment rights.

A Senator Leahy staffer has taken to Twitter to try to defend the bill.

Few seem convinced.

Expect the furor surrounding this story to intensify as the proposal heads for a vote on the Senate floor next week.

***

Update:

That was fast. Faced with near-universal backlash, Leahy has apparently scrapped the proposed bill:

Leahy’s about-face comes in response to a deluge of criticism today, including the ACLU saying that warrants should be required, and the conservative group FreedomWorks launching a petition to Congress — with over 2,300 messages sent so far — titled: “Tell Congress: Stay Out of My Email!”

This revised position will come as a relief to privacy advocates and business lobbyists, who have been scrambling since last week to figure out how to respond to Leahy’s revamped legislation. Some portions would have imposed new restrictions on law enforcement, while others would lessen existing ones, making the overall bill unpalatable to many groups.

Leahy’s proposal would have allowed over 22 agencies — including the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Communications Commission — to access Americans’ e-mail, Google Docs files, Facebook wall posts, and Twitter direct messages without a search warrant. It also would have given the FBI and Homeland Security more authority, in some circumstances, to gain full access to Internet accounts without notifying either the owner or a judge.

Let’s hope the intrusive proposal is indeed dead in the water.

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