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Supreme Court Hears Important Tech Cases

Posted in Our Blog on May 2, 2014


The United States Supreme Court will rule later this year on two different issues that could have serious consequences on how we use technology in our daily lives. One could impact the way we consume TV over the internet and the future of cloud computing; the other could have serious repercussions on our rights to privacy.

In American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. v. Aereo, a group of television networks joined together to file suit against Aereo, a small startup company that lets users record a TV show on local network TV (i.e., CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, and a few others) and then watch that show on-demand on their computers, tablets, or smartphones. Broadcast television is available for free to anyone with an antenna, and so Aereo purchases thousands of tiny antennas, assigns an antenna to each of its subscribers, stores recordings from the antennas on its servers, and then gives users access to their own saved shows. This is a clever workaround to existing laws set up to regulate commerce between networks and cable providers, but the TV networks are claiming Aereo is violating copyright laws. TV networks receive huge fees from cable companies to retransmit their content (This is how you’re able to receive local television through your cable provider instead of an antenna.), and they allege that Aereo should be paying those same fees; Aereo argues it’s merely selling access to high-grade antennas.

The arguments are intriguing from a legal perspective, but this case is also interesting for its implications. If the Supreme Court rules against Aereo, it will set a precedent establishing what can and can’t be stored on cloud servers. Technology is quickly moving toward a cloud-based world-one where files are stored on a company’s remote servers rather than on a local hard drive-and the Court’s decision could potentially gut the way companies like Google, Apple, Amazon, Dropbox, and many others operate.

The Court also heard a pair of criminal cases wherein police obtained incriminating information from the mobile phones of suspects. The question underlying these cases is what kind of protection our cell phones should be afforded from unlawful search and seizure. When a person is arrested, police are allowed to search his or her personal effects-a wallet, for example-without a warrant. But now that cell phones contain such vast amounts of personal, sensitive data such as emails, bank statements, and even medical records, the question becomes whether it’s appropriate for police to be able to search them without a warrant.

The arguments in favor of searching cell phones invoke safety for police officers-who need to know that the suspect isn’t calling in reinforcements or remotely detonating a bomb-and the need to preserve evidence. To split the difference, several of the justices are suggesting the law allow police to search suspects’ phones but only let them search for information relevant to the specific charge.

However the justices decide, it is clear that technology is moving much faster than the law. Not only is the Supreme Courts relying on case law that is decades (or more!) old to make its decisions, but the justices themselves have admitted they’re out of touch with technology. Justice Stephen Breyer said he doesn’t know what kind of phone he has because he can’t get past its password, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked how Aereo is similar to, “iDrop in the cloud,” a product that doesn’t exist.

Still, the Supreme Court has historically been on the side of innovation. In 1984, it ruled in favor of the producers of a Betamax-recorder in Sony Corp of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc. Sony manufactured Betamax recorders and VCRs for people to record TV shows, a completely new concept at the time. The Court ruled that this wasn’t copyright infringement, and the home video industry boomed as a result. Had this one simple decision gone the other way, it’s very likely we wouldn’t have DVR, Netflix, and Blu-Rays today. In many ways, the nine men and women in Washington on our highest court decide our technological future, and it will be fascinating to see how the issues raised in these cases are resolved.