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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