The American Civil Liberties Union is a group the many citizens love to hate, but the work they do is vitally important to preserving the rights of everyday citizens. The group’s primary function is to challenge groups that overstep the bounds of the Constitution and infringe on the public’s basic rights, especially when those members of the public are part of groups that have historically been dealt with unfairly.
Now, the ACLU is taking on the US Department of Justice over a law that allows software companies to take legal action against people who violate the terms of service for using their products. That might seem like a colossal waste of time–after all, is Microsoft really going to sue every single individual who checks the “I Agree” box, then violates the 392nd clause in the terms?
The reality is a lot more bleak.
As part of the complaint filed against the DoJ, the ACLU specifically points to the real-world implications of creating fake accounts, a step that has already been deemed necessary for everything from investigating racial bias in real estate (such as refusing to sell homes in “good” neighborhoods to black people) to trapping criminals online.
In a put-into-practice example, if a watchdog group creates a fake account using an alias and false personal details in order to catch an online predator, they can now be held legally accountable for establishing an account that violates the terms of service. While it would be the software company that took legal action against the watchdog group–a very real concern if the software company was named in a lawsuit for allowing pedophiles to use their product to reach children, for example–the other real fear is in the criminal outcome. If the law is allowed to stand, a defense attorney could potentially argue that the evidence was collected in a way that violated the DoJ’s own software law; this could result in all of the evidence against a pedophile being thrown out, essentially costing law enforcement the case and allowing the individual to go free.
Of course, this isn’t an easy topic. While some experts argue that the prohibition on using false information in creating an account is to enable better data mining, there have also been criminal cases in which the defendant created a phony account in order to do harm, such as the aforementioned pedophile who pretends to be a thirteen-year-old girl in order to snare children. Without a clear answer, the ACLU is working towards the good of the highest possible number of people rather than all the people.