The Electronic Communications Privacy Act was first passed in 1986, when the thought of storing an electronic message online for any length of time must have seemed absurd. So Congress, in its foresight, gave law enforcement incredibly easy access to emails older than 180 days old. No search warrant is needed, nor is the consent of the user. All that's required for police to pore over one's saved or forgotten messages is an easily obtained subpoena.
That's become a real concern of late as the government has seized upon this as an investigative tool as cloud-based Internet services like Gmail have become ubiquitous. Congress is finally looking at closing the loophole. The House Judiciary Committee had a hearing on the matter Tuesday.
Representative Louis Gohmert was there, and the perennially batty, occasionally entertaining Tyler Republican voiced additional concerns about government access to email. Here's how Reuters described it:
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Republican Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas questioned Google's access to customer email as the company places ads based on words that appear within messages. Google has said its automated scanners identify key words but do not disclose actual information about the user or message content to advertisers.
Gohmert wondered whether the federal government could request information on users whose emails or searches contain particular words. Google's Salgado rejected such possibility.
But two short paragraphs does not capture the mind-boggling stupidity of Gohmert's questions. For that, we turn to the words of Gohmert himself, which were carefully transcribed by TechDirt. Reading the exchange is sort of like listening to your technophobic, conspiracy-minded grandfather try to explain the Internet, an analogy that might help you look past the dismaying fact that this technophobic, conspiracy-minded fellow is a duly elected U.S. Congressman.
Rep. Gohmert: I was curious. Doesn't Google sell information acquired from emails to different vendors so that they can target certain individuals with their promotions?
Lawyer: Uh, no, we don't sell email content. We do have a system -- similar to the system we have for scanning for spam and malware -- that can identify what type of ads are most relevant to serve on email messages. It's an automated process. There's no human interaction. Certainly, the email is not sold to anybody or disclosed.
Gohmert: So how do these other vendors get our emails and think that we may be interested in the products they're selling.
Lawyer: They don't actually get your email. What they're able to do is through our advertising business be able to identify keywords that they would like to trigger the display of one of their ads, but they don't get information about who the user is or any...
Gohmert: Well that brings me back. So they get information about keywords in our emails that they use to decide who to send promotions to, albeit automatically done. Correct?
Lawyer: The email context is used to identify what ads are most relevant to the user...
Gohmert: And do they pay for the right or the contractual ability to target those individuals who use those keywords?
Lawyer: I might phrase that slightly differently, but the gist is correct, that advertisers are able to bid for the placement of advertisements to users, where our system has detected might be interested in the advertisement.
Gohmert: OK, so what would prevent the federal government from making a deal with Google, so they could also "Scroogle" people, and say "I want to know everyone who has ever used the term 'Benghazi'" or "I want everyone who's ever used... a certain term." Would you discriminate against the government, or would you allow the government to know about all emails that included those words?
Lawyer [confounded look] Uh... sir, I think those are apples and oranges. I think the disclosure of the identity...
Gohmert: I'm not asking for a fruit comparison. I'm just asking would you be willing to make that deal with the government? The same one you do with private advertisers, so that the government would know which emails are using which words.
Lawyer: Thank you, sir. I meant by that, that it isn't the same deal that's being suggested there.
Gohmert: But I'm asking specifically if the same type of deal could be made by the federal government? ... But if that same government will spend tens of thousands to do a commercial, they might, under some hare-brained idea like to do a deal to get all the email addresses that use certain words. Couldn't they make that same kind of deal that private advertisers do?
Lawyer: We would not honor a request from the government for such a...
Gohmert: So you would discriminate against the government if they tried to do what your private advertisers do?
Lawyer: I don't think that describes what private advertisers...
Gohmert: OK, does anybody here have any -- obviously, you're doing a good job protecting your employer -- but does anybody have any proposed legislation that would assist us in what we're doing?
Gohmert: I would be very interested in any phrase, any clauses, any items that we might add to legislation, or take from existing legislation, to help us deal with this problem. Because I am very interested and very concerned about our privacy and our email.
Gohmert: And just so the simpletons that sometimes write for the Huffington Post understand, I don't want the government to have all that information.
Rep. Sensenbrenner: For the point of personal privilege, my son writes for the Huffington Post.
Gohmert: Well then maybe he's not one of the simpletons I was referring to.
Sensenbrenner: He does have a PhD.
Bravo, Congressman. Bravo.