Amazon Argues Alexa Speech Protected By First Amendment In Murder Trial Fight – Forbes
Amazon is sticking to its guns in the fight to protect customer data. The tech titan has filed a motion to quash the search warrant for recordings from an Amazon Echo in the trial of James Andrew Bates, accused of murdering friend Victor Collins in Bentonville, Arkansas in November 2015. And it’s arguing that the responses of Alexa, the voice of the Echo, has First Amendment rights as part of that motion.
The case first came to light in December, when it emerged Amazon was contesting an order to provide audio from the Echo device, during the 48-hour period from November 21 through 22 2015, alongside subscriber and account information. Amazon handed over the subscriber information and purchase history, but in its 90-page argument against the warrant, filed late last week and published in full below, Amazon said audio should have First Amendment protections and so it wanted the warrant thrown out.
Not only does Amazon believe Echo users’ voice commands are protected as free speech, but also the Alexa Voice Service response. Amazon argued that requests and responses to Alexa contained details that would reveal much about the user and their interests, and so deserved protection from government. Furthermore, as Alexa responses reflect in some way both the user’s and Amazon’s speech, she’s also protected, the lawyers said.
“At the heart of that First Amendment protection is the right to browse and purchase expressive materials anonymously, without fear of government discovery,” Amazon’s legal team wrote, later explaining that the protections for Alexa were two-fold: “The responses may contain expressive material, such as a podcast, an audiobook, or music requested by the user. Second, the response itself constitutes Amazon’s First Amendment-protected speech.”
Citing a previous case involving Google, Amazon said that Alexa’s decision about what information to include in a response, like the ranking of search results, was “constitutionally protected opinion” and was therefore entitled to “full constitutional protection.”
Amazon said the government also needed to show “compelling need” for the data. “Such government demands inevitably chill users from exercising their First Amendment rights to seek and receive information and expressive content in the privacy of their own home, conduct which lies at the core of the Constitution,” the company wrote.
One point of additional interest for Amazon Echo consumers was highlighted in the filing. Noting that the government had tried and failed to search a Google Nexus phone thanks to its encryption, Amazon said that if the defendant had installed the Alexa App and the feds were able to access the device, “any stored audio recordings, transcripts of recordings, and records of responses from Alexa would be accessible on the cell phone.”
FORBES has contacted Amazon’s representation asking for comment, but had not received a response at the time of publication. A spokesperson told the Associated Press: “Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us. Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.”
Toni Massaro, professor at the University of Arizona College of Law, said that “the free speech arguments that favor ‘machine speech’ are surprisingly plausible under current doctrine and theory,” pointing to a paper she co-authored on the subject.
“Of course, Amazon itself has free speech rights. As long as Alexa can be seen as Amazon, there is a protected speaker here,” she noted.
On whether Amazon’s argument would stand up, Professor Massaro added: “Yelp is one thing. Algorithms are tougher to categorize.
“And even if they are speech, they may not always be protected from government regulation. That something may be covered by the First Amendment does not mean it is protected.”
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