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Do Robots Have Free Speech? Amazon Says: Yes

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By William Vogeler, Esq. on March 01, 2017 5:59 AM

If Amazon has free speech rights, shouldn't Alexa, its voice-enabled robot?

It's looking like the answer may be "yes" in a motion to protect information stored by the digital assistant in a murder case. Amazon has filed a motion to quash a warrant that seeks the digital records, which may reveal communications between a defendant and his robot.

Recordings Stored by Amazon

Amazon's lawyers have made the First Amendment argument that the defendant gave voice-commands to Alexa, who responded with information based on the defendant's request. It sounds like the defendant's free speech rights are in there, too, but here's how Amazon put it:

"The recordings stored by Amazon for a subscriber's Echo device will usually be both (1) the user's speech, in the form of a request for information from Alexa, and (2) a transcript or depiction of the Alexa Voice Service response conveying the information it determines would be most responsive to the user's query," the motion says. "Both types of information are protected speech under the First Amendment."

Two Types of Speech

Human speech and robot speech? Where is that in the casebook?

It may soon become part of First Amendment jurisprudence because the court will have to address the question. And it is more serious than a $200 desktop device.

The defendant in the case, James Andrew Bates, was charged with first-degree murder in the death of a man who was found face down in Bates' bathtub. Victor Parris Collins, an autopsy revealed, died of strangulation and drowning.

Bates had Amazon's Echo in the house. Alexa, the voice of the smart device, may have been listening at the time of death. Prosecutors want to know what she heard.

Alexa Is a Person, Too

Toni Massaro, professor at the University of Arizona College of Law, told Forbes that "the free speech arguments that favor 'machine speech' are surprisingly plausible under current doctrine and theory."

"Of course, Amazon itself has free speech rights," she said. "As long as Alexa can be seen as Amazon, there is a protected speaker here."

As Alexa, Siri, and other smart digital agents become more involved in human affairs, the law will be compelled to address their legal rights. In Europe, the Parliament has already proposed rules for robots that would grant them some form of personhood status.

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