Privacy Legislation, not Common Law Duties

NB: This post is part of the “Skepticism About Information Fiduciaries” symposium. Other contributions can be found here.

Harold Feld–

The United States has the distinction among developed nations of lacking a comprehensive consumer privacy protection law. To fill this gap, Professor Jack Balkin proposes the creation of a new class of common law fiduciaries subject to a heightened duty of care when entrusted with a party’s personal information. In addition to providing an answer to possible First Amendment problems that could arise from limiting the ability of businesses to collect personal information and use the collected information for targeted advertising, Balkin argues that courts may expand traditional fiduciary duties to this new class of “information fiduciaries” in the accordance with traditional common law principles. This would overcome the current failure of Congress and nearly all state legislatures to address the increasingly urgent problem of personal privacy in the digital economy.

Balkin’s information fiduciary proposal, while attractive in addressing some businesses that rely on collection of personal information for targeted advertising, does not do nearly enough to protect personal privacy given the unavoidable size of our information footprint. Further, an examination of existing First Amendment case law shows no clear advantage for identification of a new common law fiduciary relationship over privacy legislation. Finally, the recent passage of the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) has galvanized interest in passing comprehensive privacy legislation both on a federal level and among the other states – whereas no court has yet to identify an “information fiduciary” under the common law.

The value of Balkin’s fiduciary framework, I argue, resides not in providing an enforceable legal relationship but providing a framework for privacy legislation. The existing frameworks – the Privacy Principles adopted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 1980 which rely heavily on notice and consent and the property framework introduced by Louis Brandies in “The Right To Privacy” (both of which I discuss in this privacy white paper) – have significant limitations. Balkin’s proposed fiduciary framework provides a model for legislation that recognizes that the nature of the relationship between information collectors and aggregators requires imposing additional duties and restrictions to adequately protect consumers, while still enabling commerce and facilitating competition.

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Radical Skepticism About Information Fiduciaries

NB: This post is part of the “Skepticism About Information Fiduciaries” symposium. Other contributions can be found here.

Tamara Piety – 

fbookI was delighted to read Lina M. Khan and David E. Pozen’s recent article, A Skeptical View of Information Fiduciaries describing the reasons to be skeptical of the “information fiduciary” concept as a promising one for solving the problems posed by giant companies like Facebook. As Khan and Pozen point out, its proponents are a bit fuzzy about the details of how to reconcile these for-profit companies’ existing duties to shareholders, with some kind of fiduciary duty to users. The users’ attention is what these companies are selling. Khan and Pozen are skeptical that such a fundamental conflict can be resolved and I agree.

I only have a couple of additional points:

(1) Before looking to import the concept of a “fiduciary” to this new application, we might ask how well that concept has worked, as a means to check anti-social behavior, in the areas in which it has traditionally applied. If that area is corporate law where officers and directors are said to have fiduciary duties to the corporation and its shareholders, the answer is “Not very well.” It does not seem to have deterred much corporate misconduct.

(2) Although Khan and Pozen rightly observe that Facebook does more than sell passive viewers to its advertisers, it uses the data it collects from those users to construct or identify vulnerabilities that go far beyond the information asymmetry as it conventionally is understood in the fiduciary concept, in their discussion of the problems that the information fiduciary concept is meant to solve, they note (18-19) that many of these problems are already “proscribed by existing consumer protection laws,” they may not be confronting the degree to which Balkin, et al. may be attempting to offer alternative rationales for that existing consumer protection law given that it is no longer resting on as firm a foundation as in the past. However, the Supreme Court has been increasingly hostile to the government’s attempt to regulate any speech at all and increasingly willing to use the First Amendment as a weapon of deregulation. As Khan and Pozen note, to the extent that other arguments for special status or duties as a way to end run the Court’s more aggressive, the Supreme Court has not signaled much receptiveness to this approach.

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When All You Have Is a Fiduciary

NB: This post is part of the “Skepticism About Information Fiduciaries” symposium. Other contributions can be found here.

James Grimmelmann – 

fbookOnline platforms do different things for (and to) users. Some of these things are a good fit for fiduciary principles, some are not.

Perhaps most obviously, platforms collect data about users. Some of that data is inherently sensitive, like health records; some of it is sensitive in the aggregate, like months of Facebook likes. Either way, the users could be harmed if their data got into the wrong hands or were used against them.

Fiduciary principles are a good fit for platform data collection in two overlapping ways. First, the core fiduciary duty of confidentiality has long applied to knowledge professionals like doctors and lawyers when they receive information about their patients and clients. Like digital platforms, they need information to do their jobs; fiduciary law makes sure they use it only to do their jobs. Second, fiduciary duties of care and loyalty have long applied to parties who are entrusted with a thing of value. That’s what happens in a literal trust, the paradigmatic source of fiduciary duties. It is not difficult to extend those duties to parties who hold information, rather than money or other tangible property. Current U.S. information privacy law is patchy and hesitant, but its best version of itself would cash out fiduciary principles in specifying when and how platforms can use and share user data.

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Scaling Trust and Other Fictions

NB: This post is part of the “Skepticism About Information Fiduciaries” symposium. Other contributions can be found here.

Julie E. Cohen – 

fbookThe Centenal Cycle, the Hugo-nominated trilogy by novelist Malka Older, describes a not-too-distant future in which the existing liberal world order has been replaced by a regime of mass-mediated micro-democracy. With some exceptions—a handful of so-called null states that opted out and a more intriguing smattering of territories that opted for self-rule without the mass mediation—nation-states and their subordinate governance units have been dissolved. The vast majority of people live in centenals—contiguous territories of no more than 100,000 citizens—administered by entities of various persuasions that compete for their affiliation. Governments range from powerful, globally distributed operations such as Liberty, Heritage, and PhilipMorris to the nerdy Policy1st to regional players like AfricaUnity and DarFur to small, quirky outfits like the generally libertarian and fun-loving Free2B.

The regime of micro-democracy relies on networked information and communication services provided by an entity called, simply, Information. When we encounter it, it has assumed the status of an independent, nongovernmental entity with an unambiguously public-regarding mandate to function as a neutral guarantor of information quality.

Of course, that is easier said than done. Governments, splinter groups, and null states have incentives to sow mis- and disinformation for their own purposes. Guaranteeing information quality requires both comprehensive surveillance and an impressive array of counter-espionage capabilities. There are intricate cat-and-mouse games between the watchers and those attempting to evade them. Technologically sophisticated separatists spoof surveillance cameras and disinformation-detection algorithms and devise means of lurking undetected within secure communications channels and data streams. Resistance and subversion also establish bases of operation within Information itself. The dream of a sustainable micro-democratic order mediated by a neutral corps of public-spirited technocrats ultimately proves untenable, and yet the dream is so compelling that as the narrative closes on the aftermath of a systemic breakdown, Older’s band of protagonists is hatching plans to rebuild infrastructures, redesign institutions, and try again.

What does any of this have to do with Khan and Pozen on Balkin? The monolithic, public-spirited Information, the multiple, capitalist information fiduciaries of the Balkin proposal (see here and here), and the regime of structural regulation of information intermediaries that Khan and Pozen appear to imagine would seem to have very little in common. But they are imagined responses to the same problem: that of governing data-driven algorithmic processes that operate in real time, immanently, automatically, and at scale. More specifically, they are visions that engage with the problems of speed, immanence, automaticity, and scale in radically different ways.

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Symposium: A Skeptical View of Information Fiduciaries

Lina Khan & David Pozen –

fbookIn recent years, the concept of “information fiduciaries” has surged to the forefront of debates on platform regulation. Developed by Professor Jack Balkin, the informationfiduciary proposal seeks to mitigate the asymmetry of power between a handful of dominant digital firms and the millions of people who depend on them. Just as doctors, lawyers, and accountants are assigned special legal duties of care, confidentiality, and loyalty toward their patients and clients, Balkin argues that Facebook, Google, and Twitter should owe analogous duties toward their end users. This argument has gained broad support. Last December, over a dozen Democratic Senators introduced legislation that would designate online service providers as fiduciaries for their users, effectively implementing Balkin’s proposal.

In a forthcoming essay, we question the wisdom of applying a fiduciary framework to dominant digital platforms. Focusing on the case of Facebook—Balkin’s central example of a purported information fiduciary—we identify a number of lurking tensions in the proposal. For instance:

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Money & Memory, Capital & Communion

NB: This post is part of the “Piercing the Monetary Veil” symposium. Other contributions can be found here.

Robert Hockett–

Imagine that I incur an obligation to you – an ‘affirmative’ obligation, let’s say. Perhaps it’s through violating some ‘negative’ obligation to you, wronging you in a manner that triggers a right to redress. Perhaps it’s through promising you something. Perhaps it’s through membership in some group, the members of which are expected to ‘pay dues’ of some sort.

In virtue of this obligation, I, the ower, am now ‘liable’ on the new obligation. You, the owner, now ‘hold’ a new asset – the asset that’s my liability. Here is the start of accounting. Of shared ledgers. All accounting at bottom is obligation-accounting, justice-accounting – tracking what’s due and by whom and to whom.

Liabilities that come into existence ex nihilo – by my promising you something ‘gratuitously,’ for example – give salient rise to a two-sided danger, something a lot like the Janus-faced monetary risk of ‘inflation’ and ‘deflation.’ For one can in principle promise more than she can deliver, thereby devaluing her promises in time. Or, fearing this prospect, she can ‘not make any promises,’ thereby impoverishing her life by depriving it of the rich fabric of association and shared action that lends and brings value to life in communion with others.

Promissory inflation and deflation, through devaluation or contraction, deprive life of much of its obligatory content. And life without obligation would be life without liabilities, life without assets. It would in that sense be life without worth, without wealth, without value. It would be life without any vindicatable expectation – life without ‘rights,’ without ‘wrongs,’ without ‘right or wrong.’

How dismal that would be.

Life with real value accordingly requires, not gold (more on which below), but observance of some ‘golden mean’ – the mean between wronging and not acting, the mean between over- and under-committing. And this is as true of us in our collective capacities as it is of us in our individual capacities.

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Predatory Lending and the Predator State

NB: This post is part of the “Piercing the Monetary Veil” symposium. Other contributions can be found here.

Raul Carrillo–

Like most advocates of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), I didn’t embrace the paradigm because I dig late-night chats about accounting identities. Rather, I found it while pursuing economic justice (following the lead of Angela Harris, Emma Coleman Jordan, and other allies). Today, I fight financial predators — banks, landlords, debt collectors, and agencies engaged in racialized wealth extraction — on the daily. And so, my MMT enthusiasm remains…practical.

Although the commentariat caricatures MMT as a rationalization for U.S. deficit spending, it’s something more powerful — a new interdisciplinary lens, shaped for eyes on the prize of justice. Most importantly, MMT is rooted in legal analysis; its neochartalist foundations help illuminate financial hierarchies — so we can better dismantle them around the world.

As elites literally claim human survival is “too expensive”, it’s crucial for movements to absorb this symposium’s chief insight: money itself, although not always starkly a creature of the “state”, is a creature of law, just like the institutions through which it flows.

When we analyze money as public software, rather than private hardware, we see political economy differently. For example, as Harris argues, any movement for economic justice must overcome the toxic trope of the “undeserving benefit recipient” (and the corollary trope of the put-upon khaki-clad patriarch). In my view, MMT helps us challenge this divide-and-conquer strategy, by undermining the technical premises of “taxpayer citizenship” — the racialized and gendered notion that rights should correspond to one’s nominal contributions to government coffers. When Stephanie Kelton reminds us that “money doesn’t grow on rich people”, she is making an inference LPE readers should appreciate: the wealthy do not get their money by generating it, but by mastering a system that routes tradeable legal claims on real resources that we collectively produce (i.e. “money”) to themselves. As I’ve emphasized, the coercion Robert Lee Hale described leads the rest of us not merely to work, but to work for legal tender, which can settle debts between individuals, but must satisfy debts to the state (most notably, taxes).

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Reclaiming Public Fiscal Power for Transforming Precarity

Reclaiming Public Fiscal Power for Transforming Precarity

NB: This post is part of the “Piercing the Monetary Veil” symposium. Other contributions can be found here.

Martha T. McCluskey–

Basic legal ideas about taxation stand in the way of proposals for ambitious fiscal policies to address pervasive economic insecurity among both middle class and lower income households.

The conventional legal framework posits two primary functions for taxation. First, taxes raise revenue to finance government goods and services. Second, taxes redistribute resources, transferring money from some private interests to others based on ideas about distributional equity. Taxes also regulate private economic behavior, but this third function is generally treated as supplementary and subordinate, with economic ordering mainly directed by basic legal rules and the administrative state.

In orthodox law and economics, “optimal” tax policy achieves the two primary goals with the least “distortion” of private value-maximizing decisions in a presumed efficient and equitable market unsullied by taxes. This optimal tax theory aims to replicate a mythical market where money passively realizes and measures an underlying value fixed by barter-like exchanges of real goods, and services.

This seemingly benign conceptual frame implicitly locates economic productivity in a distinct and underlying private market sphere, with government taxing and spending cast as taking value from those who have created it. From this starting point, households can receive public support either as beneficiaries of forced public charity or as responsible consumers willing and able to pay an equivalent amount in taxes. If progressive taxing and spending programs are construed as involuntary, inherently inefficient, transfers of money from productive market winners to support less capable market losers, then that public support will tend to appear to generally inscribe rather than relieve conditions of precarity and powerlessness.

This conventional frame obscures how taxation creates money as a means for generating and distributing economic power and insecurity. Tax theory tends to ignore how law constructs and governs money, treating money as a neutral measure of social contribution.

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Financial Regulation and Social Reproduction

Financial Regulation and Social Reproduction

NB: This post is part of the “Piercing the Monetary Veil” symposium. Other contributions can be found here.

Donatella Alessandrini —

Even amongst critical scholars, there is a tendency to treat international regulation of money and finance as “strictly economic”, distinct from the “social” domains of labor, the environment, and socio-economic rights. This conceptual separation cedes the realm of finance to the “neutral” neoliberal technocracy while occluding interrelationships between finance, production, and social reproduction. Placing social reproduction at the center of our analysis forces us to overcome these false dichotomies and confront finance’s role in the shaping of the “social”.

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Money and Property

Money and Property

NB: This post is part of the “Piercing the Monetary Veil” symposium. Other contributions can be found here.

Lua Yuille and Rohan Grey —

Money and property law are mutually constitutive. Property rights are defined and valued in terms of their relationship to monetary instruments, while whether something counts as a monetary instrument for this or that purpose is itself a result of bundling property rights a certain way. Yet property law treats money as opaque: a neutral measuring stick that happens to prove useful in the process of doing the real work of property.* This is partly because money is grossly under-theorized and misunderstood by property law scholars. In property law, “money provides the unit in which prices appear, supplies a medium of exchange, and acts as a store of value”, but it does so as if by magic. Unlike students of economics, who are introduced to money through the self-consciously ahistorical fable that money evolved as an evolutionary response to the inefficiency and inadequacy of barter, American law students are not formally introduced to money at all. Money is taken as an idea that needs no articulation or unpacking. The result is a  ‘functional monetary illiteracy’ that fails to conceptualize the complicated relationship between money and property law, serving to obscure the role of the state and of private power in defining each.**

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