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trilogy by novelist Malka Older, describes a not-too-distant future in which the existing liberal world order has been replaced by a regime of mass-mediated micro-democracy.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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