The Volokh Conspiracy

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Just Published: "Terms of Service and Fourth Amendment Rights"

Now out in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review.


In the last year or two, the U.S. Department of Justice has been arguing in federal courts of appeals that Terms of Service can narrow or eliminate Fourth Amendment rights in online accounts.  If the government can win on this issue, it will largely defeat any claims to Fourth Amendment protection online.  But as I argue in my just-published article, Terms of Service and Fourth Amendment Rights, 172 U. Pa. L. Rev. 287 (2024), these arguments are mistaken.  Here's the abstract:

Almost everything you do on the Internet is governed by Terms of Service. The language in Terms of Service typically gives Internet providers broad rights to address potential account misuse. But do these Terms alter Fourth Amendment rights, either diminishing or even eliminating constitutional rights in Internet accounts? In the last five years, many courts have ruled that they do. These courts treat Terms of Service like a rights contract: by agreeing to use an Internet account subject to broad Terms of Service, you give up your Fourth Amendment rights.

This Article argues that the courts are wrong. Terms of Service have little or no effect on Fourth Amendment rights. Fourth Amendment rights are rights against the government, not private parties. Terms of Service can define relationships between private parties, but private contracts cannot define Fourth Amendment rights. This is true across the range of Fourth Amendment doctrines, including the "reasonable expectation of privacy" test, consent, abandonment, third-party consent, and the private search doctrine. Courts that have linked Terms of Service and Fourth Amendment rights are mistaken, and their reasoning should be rejected.