Clearview Hires Prominent First Amendment Lawyer To Argue For Its Right To Sell Scraped Data To Cops

from the weird-but-possibly-consitutional dept

Clearview -- the facial recognition company selling law enforcement agencies (and others) access to billions of photos and personal info scraped from the web -- is facing lawsuits over its business model, which appears to violate some states' data privacy laws. It's also been hit with cease-and-desist requests from a number of companies whose data has been scraped.

What was once a toy for billionaires has become a toy for cops, who are encouraged to test out the software by running searches on friends and family members. Clearview claims it's been instrumental in fighting crime, but evidence of this remains nonexistent.

Now, the company appears to be going on the offensive. Clearview has already argued -- through its legal rep, Tor Ekelund -- that Section 230 of the CDA insulates it against lawsuits over its use of third-party content. It's a novel argument, considering Clearview isn't actually the third party. That would be the original hosts of the content. Clearview is something else and it's not clear Section 230 applies to these lawsuits, which are about what Clearview does with the content, rather than over the content itself.

The New York Times reports Clearview has hired a prominent First Amendment lawyer -- one that has defended the paper in the past -- to make the argument that selling government agencies data scraped from the web is protected speech.

Floyd Abrams, one of the most prominent First Amendment lawyers in the country, has a new client: the facial recognition company Clearview AI.

[...]

“Floyd Abrams is without peer as the nation’s pre-eminent First Amendment attorney, and it is clear that there are potentially groundbreaking First Amendment issues relating to the cases involving Clearview AI,” said Lisa Linden, a spokeswoman for the company.

Abrams is the lawyer who gave us the Citizens United decision -- the one that allows companies and other "non-persons" to express their political beliefs through unrestricted campaign donations. If the arguments fall along these lines, Abrams will be claiming that Clearview has the First Amendment right to "talk" about other people to government agencies and private customers. If people want to talk about themselves on the open web, Clearview can't be prevented from "discussing" what it's observed with anyone who asks questions about who these people are. Of course, Abrams was also a lawyer for Hollywood who insisted that copyright being used to take down websites, while possibly censoring speech, wasn't really a 1st Amendment concern, which has always raised questions about how committed he is to the 1st Amendment as opposed to just supporting the interests of his clients.

Abrams was unaware of Clearview before being asked to represent it. The Times notes the lawyer doesn't even own a smartphone. But he's willing to push a First Amendment argument that roughly aligns with those made by other law enforcement tech companies: that collecting data en masse from public places and selling access to this data to the government is protected speech.

Mr. Abrams said that in his view, while the technology involved was novel, the premise of the cases was a company’s right to create and disseminate information.

This may be protected under the First Amendment, but it's not all that useful to its Section 230 arguments. The lawsuits it's facing deal with what Clearview does with the content it scrapes, not the content itself, so the Section 230 argument seems pointless. The First Amendment question is far more interesting. And, as odious as the company is, limiting its right to gather and disseminate data by trimming back the First Amendment would likely result in a lot of unpleasant collateral damage.

Hide this

Thank you for reading this Techdirt post. With so many things competing for everyone’s attention these days, we really appreciate you giving us your time. We work hard every day to put quality content out there for our community.

Techdirt is one of the few remaining truly independent media outlets. We do not have a giant corporation behind us, and we rely heavily on our community to support us, in an age when advertisers are increasingly uninterested in sponsoring small, independent sites — especially a site like ours that is unwilling to pull punches in its reporting and analysis.

While other websites have resorted to paywalls, registration requirements, and increasingly annoying/intrusive advertising, we have always kept Techdirt open and available to anyone. But in order to continue doing so, we need your support. We offer a variety of ways for our readers to support us, from direct donations to special subscriptions and cool merchandise — and every little bit helps. Thank you.

–The Techdirt Team

Filed Under: 1st amendment, facial recognition, floyd abrams, free speech, privacy
Companies: clearview, clearview ai


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Aug 2020 @ 6:58pm

    Re: HIPAA

    You mean data they stole, right?


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Make this the First Word or Last Word. No thanks. (get credits or sign in to see balance)    
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Sponsored Promotion
Public Money, Public Code - Sign The Open Letter at publiccode.eu
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Recent Stories

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it
Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.