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Privacy Bill Clears Hurdle in Senate

Thursday, 29 Nov 2012 | 6:17 PM ET

In a win for privacy advocates, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation on Thursday designed to strengthen electronic privacy protections.

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Most notably, the bill—called the Leahy Electronic Communications Privacy Act Amendment—requires a search warrant before law enforcement can review emails or other electronic communications.

"We are very happy that the committee voted that all electronic content like emails, photos and other communications held by companies like Google and Facebook should be protected with a search warrant," said Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

While it's no surprise that the proposed amendment passed, it's noteworthy that it went through so quickly and smoothly without major Republican opposition.

In the wake of the Petraeus scandal, which showed the ease in which law enforcement can access email accounts, this indicates growing public support for increased digital privacy. (Read More: Petraeus Sex Scandal: How Safe Are Your Emails?)

The proposed amendment now goes to the Senate floor for a vote, which could happen within the next two weeks but is more likely to occur early in the new year. (The House has yet to vote on its sister bill.)

If lawmakers approve the amendment, warrants will be required to access any electronic communications stored by a third party—similar to the warrants required to access paper files. This would be a victory for the many companies which have supported the amendment—including Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Yahoo, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and AOL. They've banded together under an organization called "Digital Due Process."

These Internet, tech, and social media companies want their users and customers to feel safe and protected—which means as many barriers as possible before they're forced to hand over personal communications.

(Read More: Online Data Not an Issue, but Privacy Is: Expert.)

Who loses? The Justice Department and law enforcement.

It just means more work. They can no longer obtain information with grand jury subpoenas. The question is whether it prevents them from doing their jobs, or if it just holds them to a higher standard — and more paperwork.

—By CNBC's Julia Boorstin; Follow her on Twitter: @JBoorstin

—The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Questions? Comments? MediaMoney@cnbc.com

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  • Working from Los Angeles, Boorstin is CNBC's media and entertainment reporter and editor of CNBC.com's Media Money section.