A federal circuit court ruled last year that an Internet provider didn't break the law when it systematically copied e-mails sent to its users and then looked at the information. The court said that because the e-mails were in temporary, millisecond storage, the company didn't intercept the messages in violation of the Federal Wiretap Act.
Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, says that's wrong. He filed legislation this week to ensure the law provides protection for e-mails between hitting the send button and the You've got mail message.
Cannon - who recently voted to renew some of the more controversial parts of the Patriot Act - said his bill would clarify that the Privacy Act considers the temporary storage of e-mails as protected. That would make it a federal crime to intercept and copy a message during the fraction of a second it is being transferred between servers.
"This legislation brings the law up to date, Cannon said in an e-mail statement. As technology changes, we need to make sure that back doors into people's privacy, such as this court ruling, stay closed.
A three-judge panel of the 1st Circuit Court ruled last year in United States v. Councilman that a company named Interloc, an online bookstore, did not violate the act by copying e-mails sent to its clients by Amazon.com; the case was appealed to the full circuit court, which has yet to issue its decision.
A friend of the court brief by several technology experts said the temporary storage of an e-mail was the same as a postmaster holding on to a letter because the recipient wasn't home. Ruling that the company could copy e-mails was similar to saying it was fine for a postmaster to open and copy all bills and advertisements mailed by Federal Express that pass through his post office, opponents said.
Grant Sperry, technical services manager for Salt Lake Valley Internet provider XMission, said the bill was sorely needed to close the loophole in the Privacy Act.
It should be considered a violation, Sperry said. It's very troubling how privacy is being taken away left and right, so anything that would help protect privacy is A-OK with us.