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Clearview AI says it’s like Facebook, Twitter in new defense



No one thought that Clearview AI, the biometrics firm that secretly scrapes images from the internet for its facial recognition software, was going to wilt under heated criticism of its business model. And it has not.

Lawyers for Clearview AI have responded to an April request for a preliminary injunction by Vermont’s state attorney general with what has been described as a novel legal argument. (Cases in Illinois and New York are ongoing as is a newly filed suit by the American Civil Liberties Union.)

Clearview AI is claiming that it is protected by the same law in Vermont — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — that protects social media platforms and, indeed, search companies. The firm reportedly has collected 4 billion face images.

Essentially, Clearview AI claims it is just another interactive online service, and has no liability for posted content. The law says social media and search firms are not publishers or a “speaker” of third-party content. They are like the sidewalk on which someone has scrawled a message in chalk.

But Clearview AI is taking content without permission. Social media platforms publish members’ content. And the state maintains that no immunity has been conferred on search firms.

Better capitalized companies than the startup have tried and failed to make the case that they have the right to the facial recognition data of its members. (Clearview considers its customers, not the people losing control of their personal data, to be members.)

Facebook in January agreed to pay $550 million to settle a class action suit that forced it to get consent from now on for using member images. And a year ago, Facebook was fined by the Federal Trade Commission $5 billion for privacy violations. That case was widely ridiculed for being inept and for doing too little to change questionable practices.

Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter have sent cease-and-desist orders to Clearview, which has ignored them.

Even if a judge were to find that premise valid, a vocal group of people online are unhappy with a company scraping images and serving them up on a platter to law enforcement agencies for them to use in investigations and for arrests.

An unreleased but presumably sizable number of police agencies are customers, including the Chicago Police Department, which allegedly paid about $50,000 for a two-year contract. That contract was recently suspended when all Clearview clients in the state were blocked.

There are multiple differences between what Clearview AI does and what the companies that are its supposed kin do, according to Vermont. Section 230 immunity is applied, for example, only when a firm publishes content provided by third parties.

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