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Netflix Social Sharing Bill Passes Without Email Privacy Protection

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Congress just passed a bill that lets you share your Michael Bay movie marathon with everyone on Facebook. What you still can't do: send an email without worrying that Big Brother is watching.

The "Netflix amendment" to the Video Privacy Protection Act is headed to President Barack Obama's desk for his signature after it was unanimously passed by the Senate on Dec. 20. The bill was crafted to let the movie rental giant allow users to share their online viewing habits on social networking sites like Facebook. Privacy protections imposed after Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork had his video rental history exposed in 1987 had prohibited users from doing that.

But while the Netflix bill got swift action, ordinary Americans hoping for email privacy safeguards are still waiting. That's because the Senate, behind closed doors, last week dropped an email privacy provision that would have forced domestic law enforcement agencies to get a warrant before reading your messages.

Because of an obscure law passed in 1986, it is relatively easy for law enforcement to open email stored in cloud services like Google or Yahoo mail without a warrant. The Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee tried to change that with an amendment attached to the Video Privacy Protection Act in November. But House Republicans never passed similar legislation.

"Changes to electronic privacy cannot happen piecemeal," Chris Calabrese a legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said after the House version of the Netflix amendment passed. “If we are to achieve true reform -- which means getting full protection for Americans’ in-boxes and private communication -- we cannot give priority to special interests. If they want updates to our privacy laws, they should have to wait in line with the American people.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said in a statement on Friday that he believed the Netflix law's passage "sets the stage" for Congress to take up his email privacy bill next year.

But until then, it will be Netflix reaping the benefits of Congressional action. The company has already announced that once Obama signs its bill, it will introduce those social sharing features in 2013.

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