Rights and Votes, Again

The Irish referendum on same-sex marriage has brought a common trope back into the public discourse: rights should not be subject to voting. There are actually a number of distinct claims that can be advanced under this heading, although they are often run together, as for instance in this piece by Saeed Kamal Dehghan in the Guardian. These claims range from plausible (although far from certain) to outright silly.

The plausible version of the rights-should-not-be-subject-to-voting position is the claim that rights should not be subject to voting in a referendum. (Perhaps this is the view that Mr. Dehghan really wants to advance in his article, although, as I will explain, this is not very clear.) A referendum campaign may indeed be a poor way of debating about rights. The ignorance of much of the electorate ― which of course goes hand in hand with the prevalence of stereotypes, usually unflattering ones, about minorities ― may make it unfit to decide important issues, even assuming that it is fit to choose representatives who eventually decide them. I have some sympathy for this view; I certainly have no desire to live in a direct, rather than a representative, democracy.

That said, even the claim that issues of rights should not settled by popular vote is both under- and over-inclusive. It is under-inclusive because all sorts of other issues should not be settled by popular vote either, for very similar reasons. I would not want income tax rates set in a referendum, for instance. If anything, rights issues may be simpler, and thus more amenable to resolution by way of referendum, than some policy matters. On the other hand, there seems to be something like an international consensus that secession of political communities is a matter that must be settled by referendum, and secession, as the Supreme Court of Canada has rightly pointed out, necessarily has an impact on minority rights. In short, the issue of whether a given topic can be resolved by referendum, and why, is not an easy one, and we must be wary of rushing to conclusions based on nothing more than hunches.

A stronger version of the rights-should-not-be-subject-to-voting position holds that rights should not be subject to any sort of democratic vote, including that of a legislature. Thus Mr. Dehghan quotes Ayn Rand’s assertion that “individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority.” This claim, in my view, is quite clearly wrong. Legislation enacted in the normal course of governance will often affect rights. Must every bill that could conceivably affect someone’s rights be stopped in its tracks so that a court can rule ― in the abstract, without knowing how the bill would be applied in real life ― on the rights issues it raises? France actually has something like that system, but of course even there, it takes a group of (democratically elected) politicians to refer a bill to the Conseil constitutionnel. (A few years, France has authorized the Conseil constitutionnel to also rule on the constitutionality of a statute after its enactment, on reference by a court.)

Now it is certainly possible to argue that courts, rather than legislatures, should have the last word on issues of rights. But the last word isn’t the same thing as exclusive competence. Legislatures can debate and vote on rights ― as they have long done ― and the courts should be available as a last resort, to respond to legislative abuse or inaction. We should not forget that legislatures have done much for rights. In much of the world, including in Canada, it was legislatures that, for instance, created (almost) universal suffrage, decriminalized homosexuality, or abolished the death penalty. All of this involved individual rights being subject to public votes. Were those votes somehow wrong?

And then, there is the paradox that ought really to be embarrassing to the defenders of the claim that rights should not be subject to democratic votes. Judicial review, which they presumably think the proper mechanism for settling issues of rights, is normally itself a creature of a democratic constitution-making process. The rights which it enforces may (or may not) be natural rights, but they are still recognized, expressly or by implication, in constitutional texts enacted through some sort of democratic process.

The strongest version of the rights-should-not-be-subject-to-voting position is the contention that rights should not be subject to any sort of vote at all. I’m not sure whether anybody seriously thinks that, although Mr. Dehghan concludes his article by endorsing Rachel Maddow’s insistence that “[h]ere’s the thing about rights – they’re not actually supposed to be voted on.” There is no qualification here about who isn’t supposed to vote on rights. On its face, this statement applies to judges as well as to voters and legislators. Yet if it really means what it says, this claim is not just wrong, but actually silly. If people are to live together, issues of rights need to be settled somehow. Negotiation is unlikely to be of much assistance, because there are too many individuals affected. Realistically, there are only two options: legislation, or adjudication. And, as Jeremy Waldron points out in a recent essay which I discussed earlier this week, the latter mechanism, no less than the former, ultimately relies on voting.

The dirty little secret of judicial review ― not much of a secret, really, but something that we try not to think about unless prof. Waldron forces us to ― is that it sometimes leaves issues of rights to be settled by a single person’s vote. That person wears an impressive-looking robe to work, but he or she is still only a human being, and not necessarily a human being of superior wisdom or virtue. The idea of the right of Irish gays and lesbians to marry being dependent on the vote of a popular majority may be unsettling. But is the idea of that right of their American fellows being dependent on the vote of a single 78 year-old man of no discernible towering intellectual abilities ought to be unsettling too.

Here’s the thing about rights ― we disagree about them, as about everything else, more or less. It may be that rights are the inalienable endowments bestowed on us by our Creator. But even if that is so, He has not left us a very clear description of just what it is that He gave us. We have to figure it out for ourselves ― and not just individually, but collectively too. Unfortunately, our ability to figure things out is pretty limited. We set up procedures that are supposed to help us do it, but none of these is fail-safe or fool-proof. As unsettling as they may be, they may also be the best we can do, at least at this point in our history.

The Course of Human Events

David R. Johnson and David Post have published a fascinating essay, “Governing Online Spaces: Virtual Representation,” at the Volokh Conspiracy, arguing that Facebook ought to move towards becoming something like a representative democracy. While various attempts at regulating Facebook and other online services and communities from the outside are a frequent topic of discussion, including, for example, here and here, Mr. Johnson and prof. Post raise a different, albeit related issue, that of internal governance.

At present, Facebook’s relationship with its users is akin to that of a “benevolent dictator[],” or perhaps an enlightened absolute monarch, a sort of digital Frederick the Great, with his subjects. That relationship is governed by the Terms of Service (TOS) that users must accept in order to use Facebook. And the company reserves the right to change those Terms of Service at will. As the law now stands, it is entitled to do so. But, say Mr. Johnson and Prof. Post, this is  wrong as a matter of principle. The principles of “self governance and self-determination” mean

that all users have a right to participate in the processes through which the rules by which they will be bound are made.  This principle is today widely accepted throughout the civilized world when applied to formal law-making processes, and we believe it applies with equal force to the new forms of TOS-based rule-making now emerging on the Net.

Market discipline―the threat of users leaving Facebook in favour of a competitor―is not enough, because the cost to the user of doing so is unusually high, due both to the users having “invested substantial amounts of time and effort in organizing their own experience at the site” and to network effects.

But attempts to have users provide input on Facebook’s Terms of Service have not been very successful. Most users simply cannot be bothered to engage in this sort of self-governance; others are ignorant or otherwise incompetent; but even the small portion of users who are willing and able to contribute something useful to Facebook’s governance comprises way too many people to engage in meaningful deliberation. Mr. Johnson and Prof. Post propose to get around these problems by setting up a system of representation. Instead of users engaging in governance directly, they would

be given the ability to grant a proxy to anyone who has volunteered to act on his/her behalf in policy discussions with Facebook management. These proxy grants could be made, revoked, or changed at any time, at the convenience of the user. Those seeking proxies would presumably announce their general views, proposals, platforms, and positions. Anyone receiving some minimum number of proxies would be entitled to participate in discussions with management — and their views would presumably carry more or less weight depending upon the number of users they could claim to represent.

This mechanism of virtual representation would, Mr. Johnson and Prof. Post argue, have several benefits. Those seeking and obtaining proxies―the representatives in a virtual democracy―would be people with the motivation and, one expects, the knowledge seriously to participate in Facebook’s governance. Representation sidelines extremists and gives power to the moderate voices and the silent majority ignored by direct democracy. At the same time, it gives Facebook the means of knowing how users feel about what it does and what it proposes to do differently in the future, which is handy for keeping them happy and avoiding having them rebel and desert to a competitor.

The proposal is not―”yet”―for a full-scale virtual democracy.  Mr. Johnson and Prof. Post accept that Facebook will retain something like a monarchical veto over the demands of its users’ representatives. Still, it is pretty radical―and pretty compelling. By all means, read it in full.

As Mr. Johnson and prof. Post recognize, “there are many unanswered questions.” Many of those concern the details of the virtual mixed constitution (to borrow a term from 18th-century political philosophy) that they are proposing, and the details of its implementation. But here’s another question, at which their discussion hints without quite reaching it.

Suppose Facebook reorganizes itself into a self-governing polity of some sort, whether with a mixed constitution or a truly democratic one. What effect would this have on its dealings with those who wish to govern it from the outside? Mr. Johnson and prof. Post write that “Facebook’s compliance with the clearly expressed will of the online polity would also surely help to keep real-space regulators at bay.” But what if it doesn’t? Not all of those regulators, after all, care a whole lot for democracy, and even if they do, their democratic constituents are citizens of local polities, not of a global one. Could this global democratic polity fight back? Could its members

dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them?

Mr. Johnson and Prof. Post allude to Alexander Hamilton and James Madison as their inspiration. But what about Thomas Jefferson?

iPrudes

There was an interesting story by Michael Posner in The Globe and Mail yesterday on Apple’s decision not to allow the sale of books and apps telling the story of Danish hippies on its commercial platforms, iBookstore and the App Store, because they contain some photographs featuring naked men and women. Apple says the pictures breach its policy against sexually explicit images. Mr. Posner accuses the company of hypocrisy, because it has not banned other books “filled with pictures of naked bodies [and] continues to sell apps for Playboy and Sports Illustrated, which feature partially naked women.” So does the author of the books, who points out that Apple’s founder, Steve Jobs, claimed to be a spiritual descendant and to share some of the ideal of the hippies movement, which he accuses Apple of betraying. The publishers, for their part, insist that the books are in no way pornographic or arousing, so that they do not breach Apple’s guidelines.

Be that as it may, the Danish authorities are not amused. Mr. Posner writes that

[l]ast week, Uffe Elbaek, the country’s culture minister, wrote to his European counterparts, and to European Union commissioners Neelie Kroes and Androulla Vassiliou, seeking to have the issue debated within the EU.

“This is a history book,” Elbaek said in an interview. “It documents how we behaved in those days. Is it fair that an American company without any real dialogue … can apply American moral standards to a product that only interests a Danish audience with vastly different moral standards?”

The minister worries that corporations “will decide how freedom of speech will be arbitrated and who is allowed artistic freedoms” and argues that “it’s important that we have these discussions at regional and national levels.” Mr. Posner too worries about freedom of speech. Indeed, he accuses Apple of “de facto censorship.”

This brings to mind several issues about which I have already blogged. One is the dual and ambiguous position of technology companies as speakers and censors, about which I have written about in Google’s case. Apple might argue that a decision not to allow the sale of a book it deems offensive or otherwise unsuitable is a form of editorial judgment and, thus, protected speech, just as Google argues its decision to disfavour copyright-infringing websites in ranking its search results is. At the same time, as the provider of a platform through which others express themselves, Apple takes on a speech-regulating role; and the importance this role is proportionate to that platform’s popularity.

But there is a crucial difference between Google removing content from, say, YouTube at the request of a government agency, and Apple removing content from its stores on its own, without any government involvement. In my view, it is not fair to refer to such decisions as censorship. A private company, at least so long as it is not a monopolist, has no power to prohibit speech. If a speaker is not allowed to use one private platform, he or she can turn to another. As Mr. Posner notes, the books Apple has banned from its stores are best-sellers in print. Their author is not exactly being silenced.

Besides, we accept that newspapers or publishers do not print everything that is submitted to them. The question, then, is whether there is a reason for holding technology companies to a different standard. Dominant market position or, a fortiori, monopoly might be one such reason. But I doubt that Apple actually has a dominant market position, even in the app market (considering Android’s popularity); it surely doesn’t have one in the book market. And I’m not sure I can think of anything else that would justify, even as a matter of morality, never mind law, saying that Apple (or Google, or whoever) has more onerous duties towards freedom of expression than traditional media companies, as Ms. Elbaek, the Danish minister, seems to think.

As always in the face of such disagreement, there also arises the question of who (if anyone) ought to be making the rules, and how―the question of the appropriate “mode of social ordering,” to use Lon Fuller’s phrase, about which I blogged here, here, and here. Ms. Elbaek seems to think that the rules regulating the ability of platforms such as Google’s or Apple to select and “censor” their contents should be said by national governments (by legislatures presumably, or maybe by executives through international treaties) or by supra-national bodies such as, presumably, the EU. (Note that she spoke of “discussions at regional and national level”―not at the UN, which she probably knows is not too keen on certain kinds of offensive speech the Danes see nothing wrong with.) But it’s not clear that governments, at whatever level, should be making these rules. As wrote in my earlier posts, legislation is often a clumsy tool for dealing with emerging technologies and new business models, because the latter develop faster than the former can adapt. And private ordering through the market might be enough to take care of the problem here, if there even is one. Apple is not a monopolist; it has competitors who might be willing to give the books which it does not like a platform, and profit from them. Authors and readers are free to use these competing platforms. Apple will remain a prude―hypocritical (as prudes often are) or not―if it thinks there is a profit to be made in prudishness, or it will convert to more liberal ways if that is more profitable.

To Track or Not to Track?

There was an interesting article in the New York Times this weekend about the brewing fight around “do not track” features of internet browsers (such as Firefox or Internet Explorer) that are meant to tell websites visited by the user who has enabled the features not to collect information about the user’s activity for the purposes of online advertising. Here’s a concrete example that makes sense of the jargon. A friend recently asked me to look at a camera she was considering buying, so I checked it out on Amazon. Thereafter, for days on end, I was being served with ads for this and similar cameras on any number of websites I visited. Amazon had recorded my visit, concluded (wrongly, as it happens) that I was considering buying the camera in question, transmitted the information to advertisers, and their algorithms targeted me for camera ads. I found the experience a bit creepy, and I’m not the only one. Hence the appearance of the “do not track” functionalities: if I had been using a browser with a “do not track feature”, this would presumably not have happened.

Advertisers, of course, are not happy about “do not track.” Tracking our online activities allows them to target very specific ads at us, ads for stuff we have some likelihood of being actually interested in. As the Times explains,

[t]he advent of Do Not Track threatens the barter system wherein consumers allow sites and third-party ad networks to collect information about their online activities in exchange for open access to maps, e-mail, games, music, social networks and whatnot. Marketers have been fighting to preserve this arrangement, saying that collecting consumer data powers effective advertising tailored to a user’s tastes. In turn, according to this argument, those tailored ads enable smaller sites to thrive and provide rich content.

The Times reports that advertisers have been fighting the attempts of an NGO called the W3C (for “World Wide Web Consortium”) to develop standards for “do not track” features. They have also publicly attacked Microsoft for its plans to make “do not track” a default (albeit changeable) setting on the next version of Internet Explorer. And members of the U.S. Senate are getting into the fight as well. Some are questioning the involvement of an agency of the US government, the Federal Trade Commission, with W3C’s efforts, while others seem to side against the advertisers.

The reason I am writing about this is that this may be another example of the development of new rules happening before our eyes, and it gives us another opportunity to reflect on the various mechanisms by which social and legal rules emerge and interact, as well as on the way our normative systems assimilate technological development. (Some of my previous posts on these topics are here, here, and here.)

W3C wants to develop rules―not legally binding rules of course, but a sort of social norm which it hopes will be widely adopted―regulating the use of “do not track” features. But as with any would-be rule-makers, a number of questions arise. The two big ones are ‘what legitimacy does it have?’ and ‘is it competent?’ As the Times reports, some advertisers are, in fact raising the question of W3C’s competence, claiming the matter is “entirely outside their area of expertise.” This is self-serving of course.  W3C asserts that it “bring[s] diverse stake-holders together, under a clear and effective consensus-based process,” but that’s self-serving too, not to mention wishy-washy. And of course a claim can be both self-serving and true.

If not W3C, who should be making rules about “do not track”? Surely not advertisers’ trade groups? What about legislatures? In theory, legislatures possess democratic legitimacy, and also have the resources to find out a great deal about social problems and the best ways to solve them. But in practice, it is not clear that they are really able and, especially, willing to put these resources to good use. Especially on a somewhat technical problem like this, where the interests on one side (that of the advertisers) are concentrated while those on the other (the privacy of consumers) are diffused, legislatures are vulnerable to capture by interest groups. But even quite apart from that problem, technology moves faster than the legislative process, so legislation is likely to come too late, and not to be adapted to the (rapidly evolving) needs of the internet universe. And as for legitimacy, given the global impact of the rules at issue, what is, actually, the legitimacy of the U.S. Congress―or, say, the European Parliament―as a rule-maker?

If legislatures do not act, there are still other possibilities. One is that the courts will somehow get involved. I’m not sure what form lawsuits related to “do not track” might take―what cause of action anyone involved might have against anyone else. Perhaps “do not track” users might sue websites that refuse to comply with their preferences. Perhaps websites will make the use of tracking a condition of visiting them, and sue those who try to avoid it. I’m not sure how that might work, but I am pretty confident that lawyers more creative than I will think of something, and force the courts to step in. But, as Lon Fuller argued, courts aren’t good at managing complex policy problems which concern the interests of multiple parties, not all of them involved in litigation. And as I wrote before, courts might be especially bad at dealing with emerging technologies.

A final possibility is that nobody makes any rules at all, and we just wait until some rules evolve because behaviours converge on them. F.A. Hayek would probably say that this is the way to go, and sometimes it is. As I hope my discussion of the severe limitations of various rule-making fora shows, making rules is a fraught enterprise, which is likely to go badly wrong due to lack of knowledge if not capture by special interests. But sometimes it doesn’t make sense to wait for rules to grow―there are cases where having a rule is much more important than having a good rule (what side of the road to drive on is a classic example). The danger in the case of “do not track” might be an arms race between browser-makers striving to give users the ability to avoid targeted ads, or indeed any ads at all, and advertisers (and content providers) striving to throw them at users.  Pace the president of the Federal Trade Commission, whom the Times quotes as being rather optimistic about this prospect, it might actually be a bad thing, if the “barter system” that sustains the Internet as we know it is be caught in the crossfire.

Once again, I have no answers, only questions. Indeed my knowledge of the internet is too rudimentary for me to have answers. But I think what I know of legal philosophy allows me to ask some important questions.

I apologize, however, for doing it at such length.

Unsettling Settlement

I blogged some time ago 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. I raised some questions about the way in which this settlement works to create new rules, social and/or legal.  Is the influence which the plaintiffs (rather than any number of similarly situated individuals or groups) acquire over the formation of these rules by virtue of being the first to sue and settle with Facebook legitimate? Even apart from legitimacy, is it a good thing from a policy standpoint? For example, how do we 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?

As the New York Times reports today, the judge who had to approve the settlement for it to go into effect also has questions, and will not give his approval until the parties come up with some answers.

As part of the proposed deal, Facebook agreed to better inform users about sponsored stories, to limit their use and to allow people under 18 to opt out of the function. The company also agreed to pay $10 million to a dozen research and advocacy groups that work on digital privacy rights, and $10 million to cover legal fees for the plaintiffs. But the settlement did not inhibit Facebook from continuing to serve up sponsored stories.

On Friday, Judge Richard G. Seeborg of United States District Court in San Francisco rejected the draft order and asked both sides to justify how they had negotiated the dollar amounts. “There are sufficient questions regarding the proposed settlement,” he wrote.

Judge Seeborg said he wanted clarification on whether there could be relief for the millions of Facebook users whose names and photographs had already been used.

From this report, it looks like Judge Seeborg is worried, as I was, about the legitimacy of the settlement as a rule-making procedure, as a “mode of social ordering,” to use Lon Fuller’s language. How do we know, he asks, that the agreement the parties reached makes sense? Is it fair to those who did not take part in the settlement negotiations but will end living by those rules with which the parties have come up as a result of an nontransparent process? Are we sure the settlement does not just benefit the parties, their pet charities, and the plaintiffs’ lawyers?

Those are sensible questions. The trouble is, as I wrote in my first post on this topic, that even if we conclude that the settlement is not an appropriate mode of social ordering, the alternatives aren’t great either. Legislation is slow and thus ill-suited to regulating an area in which change is constant and very fast. (A post by Stewart Baker at the Volokh Conspiracy, describing a proposed law that would have killed Gmail in its infancy by requiring the consent of both sender and receiver of an email for the email service to be able to scan its contents to serve up ads, shows just how ill-suited it can be. Social expectations of privacy have moved faster than the legislative process; Gmail now has close to half a billion users; and the proposed law is no more than a somewhat embarrassing memory.) And adjudication comes with serious problems of its own, which I described in the original post.

As then, I still don’t see any good way out of this conundrum.

Google as Regulator, Part Deux

A recent story, reported for example by the Globe and Mail, nicely illustrates Google’s dual, and perhaps ambiguous, role as “speaker and censor,” at once exercising, or claiming to exercise, an editorial judgment and making itself he agent of speech-restricting governments, about which I blogged some time ago. According to the Globe, “Google’s search algorithm will begin demoting websites that are frequently reported for copyright violations, a move that will likely make it more difficult to find file-sharing, Torrent and so-called file locker sites.” These websites will not be removed from search results, but they will be harder to find.

This is, it seems to me, an obvious example of “editorial judgment,” which – as I explain in more detail in the post linked to above – Google claims to exercise when designing its search algorithms. At the same time, it is an an example of Google acting, in effect, as a regulator, if not, in this case, as a censor. The decision to demote allegedly-copyright-infringing websites is not, one suspects, motivated by commercial considerations; at least not immediately commercial considerations, since, as the Globe puts it, the move “should please Hollywood” – and other content producers – and perhaps Google considers pleasing them as an investment that will pay off. Google’s state reason for this decision is that it will “help users find legitimate, quality sources of content more easily” (my emphasis). One usually associates concerns for legitimacy with public authorities rather than private corporations.

Indeed, some might want Google to take an even more public-spirited position. As Deven Desai, of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, notes in a post on Concurring Opinions, “this shift may open the door to more arguments for Google to be a gatekeeper and policer of content.” Indeed, although he does not favour such an approach, he points out that it is a “difficult question … why or why not act on some issues but not others.” Why, for example, copyright infringement but not hate speech? For now, even Google might lack the data and/or content-analyzing capacities effectively to recognize hate speech. But given how fast technology evolves, this might change sooner rather than later. As prof. Desai observes, if Google becomes a more overt internet regulator, it will be criticized, for example from a competition-law standpoint. But of course it will also be criticized if it refuses to take on that role.

Either way, there will be a lot of interesting questions for lawyers. At what point does Google, acting as a quasi-regulator, become a state agent subject to constitutional constraints? How does competition law, and its prohibition on abuse of a dominant position, interact with the constitutional protection of freedom of speech, if the latter encompasses Google’s freedom of editorial judgment about its algorithm? What sort of due process rights do or should people affected by Google’s editorial decisions have – and what legal framework – for example, administrative or maybe tort law – is appropriate for settling this question? This is a lot to think about. No answers from me for now.

The Art of Judging Art

The New York Times ran a fascinating article yesterday about lawsuits in which courts are asked to rule on the authenticity of works of art. Of course it is a rare judge or member of a jury who has any sort of experience expertise in such matters. So the cases become battles of experts, with the triers of fact “with no background in art” having to “arbitrate among experts who have devoted their lives to parsing a brush stroke.”

As the article points out, this is not, in itself, unusual. Medical malpractice cases are like that – judges and most jurors don’t know the first thing about what good medical practice is. So are a great many other cases. What is unusual is that the art world (buyers and sellers of works of art, and the intermediaries they employ) seems pretty much to ignore the courts’ judgments. The market, the articles says, is “a higher authority” than the courts; an artwork declared authentic by a judge or a jury can still be treated as a fake and go unsold for decades.

One explanation for this, provided by an “art law specialist” quoted by the Times is that “[i]n civil litigation the standard of proof is ‘more likely than not.’ Now picture yourself walking into a gallery and seeing a Picasso. You ask, ‘Did Picasso paint that?,’ and the dealer says, ‘Yes, more likely than not.’ You wouldn’t buy that.” The relevant community – the market – imposes a higher standard of proof (though the article doesn’t tell us which one – is it something like beyond a reasonable doubt, or perhaps an even heavier burden?), and a court judgment will not often meet it, because it is not designed to do so. (Judges, the article notes, are aware of this disconnect.)

Still, although the article does not focus on this, while the community as a whole may be able to ignore the pronouncements of ignorant or credulous judges and juries, the actual parties to the cases are not. If, say, a buyer sues a seller for fraud on the basis that the painting she bought is a fake, and the court finds that it is authentic, she has to live with the judgment, even though the art community may conclude that the judgment is mistaken. The buyer is then stuck with a valueless painting, and no remedy at all. In the same way, I suppose, doctors may think that a colleague of theirs has been unfairly found liable in a malpractice suit, and is actually a great professional and completely blameless in the case – but he still has to pay damages.

This is yet another reminder of the limits of the courts’ ability to grapple with the world’s complexity and to serve as an effective dispute-settling and/or truth-finding mechanism. Other areas in which these limits are manifest on which I have already blogged include foreign policy and emerging technologies. These limits are not necessarily a bad thing; no human institution is perfect. The good news is that we have a number of institutions trying to deal with difficult questions – courts, legislatures, the market, etc. – so we need not rely on just one of them.  Sometimes one will be better at dealing with questions of a particular type, so we can defer to its answer. The bad news is that sometimes it is not clear which is better, and indeed sometimes it is clear that none of them are very good at all (as I concluded was the case for new technologies). In the case of art, it is arguably better to live by the decentralized, collective wisdom of the art community than the necessarily uncertain and ignorant judgments of the courts. That collective wisdom is not infallible, but courts, it would seem, are even worse.

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.