Accountability for the Internet of Torts

Rebecca Crootof 

Tort law has always shaped political economy in the wake of technological developments. Sometimes it operates to protect the powerful; sometimes it intervenes in power relations to correct new imbalances. The history of tort law can be understood as a series of case studies in how new technologies enable new conduct and harms, and in how judges and legislatures changed the law to address the resulting power dynamics between industry and individuals. The concept of ultrahazardous activities, the creation of no-fault workers’ compensation and motor vehicle insurance, and the rise of mass tort46038488 - law concept: circuit board with  scales icon, 3d render litigation can all be partially traced to underlying technological changes and accompanying social shifts.

Today, we are at the inflection point of another such transformation. In an earlier post, Introducing the Internet of Torts, I discussed how Internet of Things (IoT) companies are able to create and impose their own contractual governance regimes. They use terms of service to displace the law of the state, and they employ technological self-help to enforce their rules. Furthermore, the physicality of IoT devices increases the likelihood of consumer property damage and physical harm when companies discontinue service or otherwise engage in digital repossession. In this post, I will use prior tort law revolutions as a springboard to discuss how new products liability law and fiduciary duties could be used to rectify this new power imbalance and ensure that IoT companies are held accountable for the harms they foreseeably cause.

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Introducing the Internet of Torts

Rebecca Crootof 

Once upon a time, missing a payment on your leased car would be the first of a multi-step negotiation between you and a car dealership, bounded by contract law and consumer protection rules, mediated and ultimately enforced by the government. You 46038488 - law concept: circuit board with  scales icon, 3d rendermight have to pay a late fee, or negotiate a loan deferment, but usually a company would not repossess your car until after two or even three consecutive skipped payments. Today, however, car companies are using starter interrupt devices to remotely “boot” cars just days after a payment is missed. This digital repossession creates an obvious risk of injury when an otherwise operational car doesn’t start: as noted in a New York Times article, there have been reports of parents unable to take children to the emergency room, individuals marooned in dangerous neighborhoods, and cars that were disabled while idling in intersections.

This is but one of many examples of how the proliferating Internet of Things (IoT) enables companies to engage in practices that foreseeably cause consumer property damage and physical injury. But how is tort law relevant, given that these actions are authorized by terms of service and other contracts? In this post I’ll elaborate on how IoT devices empower companies at the expense of consumers and how extant law shields industry from liability. In a future post, Accountability for the Internet of Torts, I’ll discuss what we can learn from prior tort law revolutions about how the law might evolve to hold these companies accountable. Overarchingly, a political economy perspective highlights how technological developments like the development of the IoT are not neutral—they enable new conduct, new relationships, and new kinds of harm that disproportionately affect the poor—and how law can be used either to preserve or correct resulting power imbalances.

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