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Facebook and Other Social Media Face Uncertain Future at Supreme Court on Monday

( [email protected] ) Nov 28, 2014 03:43 PM EST
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case involving online threats made through Facebook. It is the first time that the nation's highest court will confront the question of whether social media users can be prosecuted for careless actions online and represents a continued willingness by the judicial branch to deal with technology issues in the absence of action by Congress or the White House.
U.S. Supreme Court

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case involving online threats made through Facebook. It is the first time that the nation's highest court will confront the question of whether social media users can be prosecuted for careless actions online and represents a continued willingness by the judicial branch to deal with technology issues in the absence of action by Congress or the White House.

The case before the court, Elonis v. United States, involves a man who was convicted of posting threats on Facebook about his wife and others. The key question that the justices will address next week centers around whether the context of idle chatter and musings that people express freely today on the Internet can be viewed the same way as other forms of communication.

The government believes that the answer is that a threat counts as a threat regardless of the medium used and this has led to fears that if the court sides with the U.S., it will open the gates wide for prosecution of a wide range of careless Internet ramblings.

The high court's willingness to consider the Facebook-related case represents a continued involvement by the justices in a number of technology issues. In the previous 2013-2014 term, the Supreme Court ruled on several cases before it that had a major impact on the tech community.

Foremost among these was the Aereo case, which involved a two-year old startup that was distributing broadcast signals over the Internet using small antennas. Broadcasters such as CBS and ABC were fearful that Aereo's growing popularity would negatively impact their lucrative retransmission rights with satellite and cable TV providers.

Last June, the Supreme Court ruled that Aereo had violated broadcast network copyrights. Just a few days ago, the livestream TV startup filed for bankruptcy.

In another important technology case last term, the court ruled that police must obtain warrants for most cellphone searches. Since that decision, there have been continued news reports that police routinely ignore this requirement, leading to speculation that the high court may revisit the issue again soon.

In addition to the Facebook case to be heard Monday, the court is also examining two other issues this term that could have an impact on the tech world. Earlier this fall, the high court heard arguments in Integrity Staffing Solutions v. Busk which will decide if warehouse workers at an Amazon facility in Nevada should be paid for the time they spend in the online giant's mandatory daily security screening lines.

The court is still deciding whether to hear the case of Spokeo Inc. v. Robbins, which involves the right of consumers to sue for damages even when they have suffered no harm. Spokeo is a people search engine based in Mountain View, California.

This case has attracted widespread interest in Silicon Valley because of the number of tech firms who have been subjected to expensive class action lawsuits over the use of stored online information. Google, Facebook, eBay, and Yahoo have all filed briefs with the court seeking to strike down these "right-to-sue" laws.

The Supreme Court's actions over the past two years affecting technology issues stands in marked contrast to activity by the other two branches of government. On the issue of immigration reform, the technology community has been nearly unanimous in its support of lifting the annual cap affecting H1B visas for specialized high-tech workers.

However, the collapse of immigration reform in Congress this year left the tech community without action and President Obama's recent executive order on immigration has not been greeted positively by many in Silicon Valley.

This has left the real action affecting the tech community to take place in the marble lined halls of the U.S. Supreme Court. The next chapter will be written on Monday.

Tags : Elonis v. United States, the Aereo case, Integrity Staffing Solutions v. Busk, Spokeo Inc. v. Robbins, Google, Facebook, eBay, and Yahoo, Right-to-Sue, Silicon Valley