The Aereo case is being decided by people who call iCloud ‘the iCloud.’ Yes, really.


Elena Kagan is congratulated by Chief Justice John Roberts (R) after being sworn in to the 112th US Supreme Court justice. Counselor to the Chief Justice Jeffrey Minear (center) holds the bible. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

In the end, the Supreme Court's ideal frame of reference was the phonograph.

In struggling to find the right conceptual analogy for the two-year-old start-up Aereo, our nation's top judicial officials also considered the difference between a car dealership and a valet parking service. But the fact that their first instinct was to turn to an invention created 137 years ago speaks gigabytes for how well the justices approach the day's most important technology cases.

It's easy to poke fun at the bench. Justice Sonia Sotomayor kept referring to cloud services alternately as "the Dropbox," "the iDrop," and "the iCloud." Chief Justice John Roberts apparently struggled to understand that Aereo keeps separate, individual copies of TV shows that its customers record themselves, not one master copy that all of its subscribers have access to. Justice Stephen Breyer said he was concerned about a cloud company storing "vast amounts of music" online that then gets streamed to a million people at a time -- seemingly unaware of the existence of services like Spotify or Google Play. And Justice Antonin Scalia momentarily forgot that HBO doesn't travel over the airwaves like broadcast TV.

This is hardly the first time the court has seemed to betray a poor grasp of technology. Earlier this year, Justice Anthony Kennedy flatly assumed that many computer programs could be written by a college kid in a coffee shop over a single weekend. No one corrected him. And it's been only four years since Scalia asked the room whether you could print out text messages.

Yes, it's fun to mock justices who seem clueless about technology. But the truth is that the laws themselves are often far behind technology. When a justice asks about a phonograph, it's because he is trying to go back to the most basic examples that support the current legal framework. And if a justice truly doesn't understand the basics of some technology, you wouldn't want them not to ask these questions out of fear of ridicule.  

So long as they've accurately perceived the legal principles underlying the case, does it matter whether Sotomayor personally owns a Roku? It's unlikely Breyer actually thinks Aereo is doing the digital version of FedExing phonograph records to 10,000 people. But as a way of probing gaps in the lawyers' armor, it's not a bad method.

All the time, companies argue that new technological advances mean that the old rules ought to be thrown out, or rewritten or that they don't apply to them. We need Supreme Court justices who can effectively unpack and challenge those claims when necessary, and for that, they need some understanding of how technology functions. But the Aereo case is an interesting test for just how tech savvy justices need to be in order to do their jobs.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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