Court Says By Agreeing To AOL's Terms Of Service, You've 'Consented' To Search By Law Enforcement

from the time-to-change-those-terms-of-service dept

The ACLU's Jameel Jaffer alerts us to a district court ruling in NY that effectively says that by merely agreeing to AOL's terms of service, you've waived your 4th Amendment rights. The case is the United States v. Frank DiTomasso, where DiTomasso is accused of producing child porn -- with most of the evidence used against him coming from AOL. DiTomasso argues that it was obtained via an unconstitutional search in violation of the 4th Amendment, but judge Shira Scheindlin rejects that, by basically saying that AOL's terms of service make you effectively waive any 4th Amendment right you might have in any such information. To be fair, Scheindlin doesn't get to that conclusion breezily, and earlier in the ruling worries that one can just give up such 4th Amendment rights:
I conclude that it would subvert the purpose of the Fourth Amendment to understand its privacy guarantee as “waivable” in the sense urged by the government. In today’s world, meaningful participation in social and professional life requires using electronic devices — and the use of electronic devices almost always requires acquiescence to some manner of consent-to-search terms. If this acquiescence were enough to waive one’s expectation of privacy, the result would either be (1) the chilling of social interaction or (2) the evisceration of the Fourth Amendment. Neither result is acceptable.
Agreed. So... what's the issue here? Well, apparently AOL's terms of service are so clear to the point that it would monitor your account for illegal behavior that somehow it's okay in this case:
AOL’s policy is quite different. Not only does it explicitly warn users that criminal activity is disallowed, and that AOL monitors for such activity; the policy also explains that “AOL reserves the right to take any action it deems warranted” in response to illegal behavior, including “terminating] accounts and cooperat[ing] with law enforcement.” The policy also makes clear that AOL reserves the right to reveal to law enforcement information about “crimes[s] that [have] been or [are] being committed.” In contrast to Omegle’s policy, which includes only a passing reference to law enforcement — and which gives no indication of the role Omegle intends to play in criminal investigations — AOL’s policy makes clear that AOL intends to actively assist law enforcement. For this reason, I conclude that a reasonable person familiar with AOL’s policy would understand that by agreeing to the policy, he was consenting not just to monitoring by AOL as an ISP, but also to monitoring by AOL as a government agent. Therefore, DiTomasso’s Fourth Amendment challenge fails as to the emails.
I'm not entirely sure how to reconcile those two paragraphs. They seem to directly contradict one another. The fine line of difference here is that the court is saying the 4th Amendment rights aren't "waived," but that DiTomasso effectively "consented" to a search by law enforcement. This seems like a distinction without any real difference.

Still, there is a separate public policy question here. Many internet service providers similarly analyze emails against a hash database of known child porn images to try to catch people sending around child porn -- and there's a reasonable argument to be made that there's a good reason that this is done. In fact, just a few months ago there was news of a similar situation involving a Gmail user, where Google's automated systems alerted NCMEC to potential child porn. But, even given that, it seems troubling to suggest, even in this somewhat narrow manner, that you could effectively give up your 4th Amendment rights just by agreeing to a terms of service. These are the kinds of loopholes that the government is known to jump all over and expand until they effectively swallow the entire rule. And, of course, almost no one wants to claim that they're trying to better defend people engaged in child porn -- but that's how basic fundamental rights get chipped away. You attack those rights against the kind of people that no one wants to defend, and then that removal of rights is expanded to more and more and more people. Even if you're against child porn (and you should be), it should be concerning that a mere terms of service can be seen as official "consent" to law enforcement to a search of otherwise private communications.

Filed Under: 4th amendment, consent to search, email, frank ditomasso, terms of service
Companies: aol


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  1. icon
    Cal (profile), 6 Nov 2014 @ 5:53am

    Re: Re: Constitution Supercedes

    You are incorrect. All MUST be in Pursuance of the US Constitution to be lawful here - ALL.

    Nothing here in the USA can supersede the US Constitution. That is written into it. But if that is not enough...

    The Supreme Court of the United States, 1866 - Yes, it is not only applicable, it is more applicable then the ones the domestic enemies within the judicial branch of the USA have been turning out in the last few decades:
    "The Constitution of the United States is a law for rulers and people, equally in war and peace, and covers with the shield of its protection all classes of men, at all times, and under all circumstances. No doctrine involving more pernicious consequences was ever invented by the wit of man than that any of its provisions can be suspended during any of the great exigencies of government. Such a doctrine leads directly to anarchy or despotism."

    This also is saying that there is NO SUCH THING AS "martial law" or "emergency powers", which is just Military taking over and making a decision based on who is in charge of operations in that area at that time. Here in the USA, it is the US Constitution, NOT a person in any position they might occupy.

    From the Father of the US Constitution, James Madison: "Because if . . . [An Unalienable Natural Right of Free Men] . . . be exempt from the authority of the Society at large, still less can it be subject to that of the Legislative Body. The latter are but the creatures and vicegerents of the former. Their jurisdiction is both derivative and limited: It is limited with regard to the coordinate departments, more necessarily is it limited with regard to the constituents. The preservation of a free Government requires, not merely, that the metes and bounds which separate each department of power be invariably maintained: but more especially that neither of them be suffered to overleap the greater Barrier which defends the rights of the people. The Rulers who are guilty of such an encroachment, exceed the commission from which they derive their authority, and are Tyrants. The people who submit to it are governed by laws made neither by themselves nor by an authority derived from them, and are Slaves"

    Let's take the Healthcare Act (Obamacare); Judge Thomas M. Cooley: "Legislators have their authority measured by the Constitution, they are chosen to do what it permits, and NOTHING MORE, and they take solemn oath to obey and support it. . . To pass an act when they are in doubt whether it does or does not violate the Constitution is to treat as of no force the most imperative obligations any person can assume."

    Everyone who signed that is a criminal.

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