Close this menu

Reminder: The Constitution Protects Innovators, Too

This week, some businesses filed a constitutional challenge against Utah’s new law restricting license plate recognition technologies. The lawsuit, filed by NetChoice members DRN and Vigilant, seeks a critical precedent that would remind state legislatures that the Constitution protects innovators– just as it protects other citizens.

The businesses filing this suit offer license plate recognition (LPR) technology and services.  We first wrote about this last July, describing the LPR witch-hunt being run by privacy advocates.

But when you stop and think about it, LPR  just automates a critical task that law enforcers have been doing since license plates were first created more than a century ago. Back then, a police officer would write down license plate numbers he encountered on the street, then go back to the office and compare against lists of suspect plates.  With today’s LPR technology, this happens in the blink of an eye, while keeping officers on the street instead of looking through file cabinets.

The efficiencies created by LPR allowed it to become a necessary tool to find criminals and save lives.  It assisted in finding criminals in thousands of cases, including the capture of those responsible for the failed Times Square bombing.

Ironically, it’s the efficiency of these innovative technologies that seems to be driving the American Civil Liberties Union to demand new restrictions on LPR use by our law enforcement agencies.  And the ACLU is stoking anti-LPR legislation in statehouses around the country.

From our perspective, the implications of this lawsuit go beyond LPR technology.  We’re concerned about any legislation that suppresses an innovative new technology before it gets a chance to prove its worth.  For so many online innovations– travel booking, car buying, auctions, taxi service — we’ve seen opponents worrying about harms that never actually occurred. But just the idea that something bad might happen is sometimes enough to prompt state legislators to throttle emergent technologies in their infancy.

Anti-LPR legislation is just the latest example of this dynamic.  As we’ve said before, the justification for these bills is prospective privacy problems that the ACLU believes could occur in the future. These fears are not justified by what law enforcement is actually doing with LPR today, or by the critical value LPR has for communities, crime victims, and ordinary citizens.

This is not how legislation is supposed to work. This nation’s tech industry has led the world largely because American innovators have been allowed to create new technologies and build businesses — without begging a permission slip before they disrupt established industries and legacy interests.  When new technologies do generate harmful side-effects, legislators can and do define new boundaries.  But they don’t typically enact new laws based only upon fears of what might happen.

But that is changing, and that change portends a real threat to America’s innovation primacy. Which is why we applaud DRN and Vigilant for pushing back against legislative bullying. When we look back years from now, we may see this lawsuit as the first step in tipping the regulatory balance back in favor of innovation.