In with the New?

Last week, I suggested that “[n]ew technologies seem not so much to create moral issues as to serve as a new canvass on which to apply our old concerns.” But there is no doubt that our legal rules, unlike perhaps moral ones, need updating when new technology comes along. How this updating is to happen is a difficult question. Lon Fuller, in his great article on “The Forms and Limits of Adjudication,” distinguished “three ways of reaching decisions, of settling disputes, of defining men’s relations to one another,” which he also called “forms of social ordering”: elections (and, one has to assume, resulting legislation), contract, and adjudication. All three can be and are used in developing rules surrounding new technologies, and the distinctions between them are not as sharp as Fuller suggested, because they are very much intertwined. Some recent stories are illustrative.

One is a report in the New York Times about a settlement between an unspecified group of plaintiffs and Facebook regarding Facebook’s approach to what it calls “sponsored stories” which tell us that such and such friends “like” a certain company’s page. Pursuant to the settlement, Facebook “will amend its terms of use to explain that users give the company permission to use their name, profile picture and content [and] offer settings that let users control which of their actions — which individual like, listen, or read — will appear in Sponsored Stories.” More than the (substantial) costs to Facebook, what interests me here is the way in which this settlement establishes or changes a rule – not a legal rule in a positivist sense, but a social rule – regulating the use of individuals’ names and images in advertising, introducing a requirement of consent and opt-out opportunity.

What form of social ordering is at work here? Contract, in an immediate sense, since a settlement is a contract. But adjudication too, in important ways. For one thing, the settlement had to be approved by a court. And for another, and more importantly, it seems more than likely that the negotiation would not have happened outside the context of a lawsuit which it was meant to settle. Starting, or at least credibly threatening, litigation is probably the only way for a group of activists and/or lawyers to get a giant such as Facebook to negotiate with them – in preference to any number of other similar groups – and thus to gain a disproportionate influence on the framing of the rules the group is interested in. Is this influence legitimate? Even apart from legitimacy, is it a good thing from a policy standpoint? For example, how do “we” – or does anyone – know that this particular group is motivated by the public interest and, assuming that it is, capable of evaluating it correctly and of being an effective negotiator? I think these are very troubling questions, but there are also no obvious ways of preventing social ordering through adjudication/negotiation even if we do conclude that it is problematic.

That is because alternative modes of social ordering are themselves flawed. Legislation is slow and thus a problematic response to new and fast-developing technologies. And adjudication (whether in a “pure” form – just letting courts develop rules in the process of deciding cases – or in the shape of more active judicial supervision of negotiated settlements) comes with problems of its own.

One is the subject of a post for Forbes by Timothy B. Lee, who describes how the fact that judges are removed from the communities that are subject to and have to live with the rules that they develop leads them to produce rules that do not correspond to the needs of these communities. One example he gives is that “many computer programmers think they’d be better off without software patents,” yet one of the leading judges who decides cases on whether there should be such patents “doesn’t have a very deep understanding of the concerns of many in the software industry. And, more to the point, he clearly wasn’t very interested in understanding those concerns better or addressing them.” Mr. Lee believes that this would be different if the judges in question happened to have friends or family members among the ranks of software developers. Perhaps – but, as he acknowledges, it is not possible for judges to have personal connections in every walk of life. Even trying to diversify the courts will only do so much. Furthermore, the individual experiences on which Mr. Lee thinks judges should rely might be atypical and thus tend to produce worse, rather than better, rules. Here too, questions about just how much judging ought to be informed by personal experience – as a matter both of policy and of legitimacy – are pressing.

Another set of questions about the courts’ handing of new technologies is the subject of a great paper by Kyle Graham, a professor at Santa Clara University and the author of the entertaining Non Curat Lex blog. Focusing on the development of liability rules surrounding new technologies, and using the examples of some once-new gadgets, mostly cars and planes,  prof. Graham points out that

[t]he liability rules that come to surround an innovation do not spring immediately into existence, final and fully formed. Instead, sometimes there are false starts and lengthy delays in the development of these principles. These detours and stalls result from five recurring features of the interplay between tort law and new technologies … First, the initial batch of cases presented to courts may be atypical of later lawsuits that implicate the innovation, yet relate rules with surprising persistence. Second, these cases may be resolved by reference to analogies that rely on similarities in form, and which do not wear well over time. Third, it may be difficult to isolate the unreasonable risks generated by an innovation from the benefits it is perceived to offer. Fourth, claims by early adopters of the technology may be more difficult to recover upon than those that arise later, once the technology develops a mainstream audience. Fifth, and finally, with regard to any particular innovation, it may be impossible to predict whether, and for how long, the recurring themes within tort law and its application that tend to yield a “grace” period for an invention will prevail over those tendencies with the opposite effect. (102)

I conclude, with my customary optimism, that there seem to be no good ways of developing rules surrounding new technologies, though there is a great variety of bad ones. But some rules there must be, so we need to learn to live with rotten ones.

7 thoughts on “In with the New?

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