An Amazon Echo is being viewed as a key piece of evidence in an ongoing murder investigation in Arkansas dating back to 2015. Police want to access the voice recordings from the device’s built-in virtual assistant Alexa. They’ve issued a warrant for the Echo audio covering a 48-hour period from November 21, 2015 through the following day, as well as for the device’s subscriber and account information.
Amazon obliged the warrant’s request for the subscriber information and purchase history, but Amazon protested the release of the audio recordings in a lengthy argument against the warrant that it filed last week. In the 90-paged memorandum, Amazon attempted to quash the warrant with the argument that both the human user and Amazon’s artificially intelligent (AI) virtual assistant Alexa have First Amendment rights that protect their speech.
“At the heart of that First Amendment protection is the right to browse and purchase expressive materials anonymously, without fear of government discovery,” wrote Amazon’s legal team, later adding, “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.”
The case, Amazon’s lawyers argued, was similar to a previous one involving Google. Alexa’s decisions on which information to provide in search results were “constitutionally protected opinion” and, therefore, entitled to “full constitutional protection.”
Obviously, legal arguments that involve AI are new for many courts. While a couple of previous cases may be on the books, there may not be enough yet to establish clear precedence to facilitate legal debate. Experts have argued, however, that AI should be given legal rights. In a paper originally published in August 2015 and revised in October 2016, University of Arizona College of Law professor Toni Massaro and Helen L. Norton of the University of Colorado School of Law discussed “whether the First Amendment ever will (or ever should) protect AI speech or speakers even absent a locatable and accountable human creator.”
In an interview with Forbes, Massaro said that “the free speech arguments that favor ‘machine speech’ are surprisingly plausible under current doctrine and theory.” She added, “Of course, Amazon itself has free speech rights. As long as Alexa can be seen as Amazon, there is a protected speaker here.” Oxford University professor Marcus du Sautoy pushed the argument even further, saying that when AI develop consciousness, it’s inevitable that these be given “human rights.”
Massaro, however, clarified that algorithms are difficult to categorize legally and may not be classified as speech, altogether. “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,” she noted.
At this point, it’s fair to assume that there will be more cases similar to Amazon’s in the coming months and years, as AI devices become ubiquitous and part of ordinary day-to-day transactions. What’s needed, therefore, are clear policies that can help in crafting future laws that would provide sound guidelines for “nonhuman” rights.