Author: Frank Pasquale

The Right to be Forgotten: Not an Easy Question

I’ve previously written on regulation of European data processing here. I’ll be presenting on the “right to be forgotten” (RtbF) in Chicago this Spring. I’ll be writing a series of posts here to prepare for that lecture.

Julia Powles offers an excellent summary of the right in question. As she explains, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that, “in some circumstances—notably, where personal information online is inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant, or excessive in relation to data-processing purposes—links should be removed from Google’s search index.” The Costeja case which led to this ruling involved Google’s prominent display of results relating to the plaintiff’s financial history.

Unfortunately, some US commentators’ views are rapidly congealing toward a reflexively rejectionist position when it comes to such regulation of search engine results–despite the Fair Credit Reporting Act’s extensive regulation of consumer reporting agencies in very similar situations. Jeffrey Toobin’s recent article mentions some of these positions. For example, Jules Polonetsky says, “The decision will go down in history as one of the most significant mistakes that Court has ever made.” I disagree, and I think the opposite result would itself have been far more troubling.

Internet regulation must recognize the power of certain dominant firms to shape impressions of individuals. Their reputational impact can be extraordinarily misleading and malicious, and the potential for harm is only growing as hacking becomes more widespread. Consider the following possibility: What if a massive theft of medical records occurs, the records are made public, and then shared virally among different websites? Are the critics of the RtbF really willing to just shrug and say, “Well, they’re true facts and the later-publishing websites weren’t in on the hack, so leave them up”? And in the case of future intimate photo hacks, do we simply let firms keep the photos available in perpetuity?
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Interview on The Black Box Society

BBSBalkinization just published an interview on my forthcoming book, The Black Box Society. Law profs may be interested in our dialogue on methodology—particularly, what the unique role of the legal scholar is in the midst of increasing academic specialization. I’ve tried to surface several strands of inspiration for the book.

Digital Labor & Rethinking Economics

LaborDayIt’s easy to document the degradation of work conditions in the wake of capital’s ascendance. I’ve done so for years, fully expecting that globalization would push the downward convergence of non-college-educated American workers’ living standards to that of the 73% of the global work force now living in the developing world. But I think we are in the midst of a sea change of resistance. Just listen to Belabored, an extraordinary series of podcasts on labor struggles (with plenty of print/web sources accompanying each broadcast). Or, if you’re in, or can visit, New York City, try to attend the following two conferences:

Rethinking Economics: A student-led movement, this group has an all-star line-up for a conference on Sept. 12-14. I’m particularly happy to see Philip Mirowski in the mix, as his Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown was one of my most enjoyable (and illuminating) reads this summer.

Digital Labor: This November conference will “will bring together designers, labor organizers, theorists, social entrepreneurs, historians, legal scholars, independent researchers, cultural producers and perspectives from workers themselves to discuss emerging forms of mutual aid and solidarity.” I attended the first iteration in 2009, and am on the Advisory Board for this one. It should be a fascinating event, particularly as forms of exploitation common in the “gig economy” influence large corporations.

Photo Credit: Karen Horton.

A Pithy Rendering of the New Political Economy

I remember reading Raymond Geuss’s The Idea of a Critical Theory in graduate school and finding it a clear, compelling work. Geuss reflects on the book in a recent essay, offering the following summation of our economic predicament:

What the 1980s and 1990s had in store for us. . . was the successive implementation of a series of financial gimmicks which created financial bubbles and allowed the illusion of increasing growth for the majority of the population to be maintained for a while. . . . [T]he system began to collapse in 2007 and 2008. Catastrophe was averted only by a bizarre . . . set of political interventions in the Western economies–interventions that have correctly been described as “socialism for the rich”: defaulting banks and failing industries were propped up by huge public subsidies, private debts were taken over by the state and profits continued to flow to private investors. This structure, which certainly bears no similarity whatsoever to the ways in which proponents of “capitalism” have described their favored arrangements, seems to give us the worst of all available worlds. . . .

[T]he forms of economic regulation that had been introduced during the Great Depression of the 1930s and had stood the West in good stead for over forty years were gradually relaxed or abolished during the 1980s. Social welfare systems that had gradually been developed came under pressure and began to be dismantled; public services were reduced or “privatized”; infrastructure began to crumble. Inequality, poverty and homelessness grew.

Thus the current trend of corporate profits without widespread prosperity.

One of the very few contemporary economists up to responding to these trends is Mariana Mazzucato, who teaches that any account of value extraction has to be premised on an account of value creation. I’ll be blogging on her work’s relevance to IP, tax, and other policy over the rest of the month. For now, I highly recommend her contribution to the panel “How to Change the Post-Crash Economy,” at the RSA.

The Assault on Journalism in Ferguson, Missouri

The city of Ferguson, Missouri now looks like a war zone. Rapidly escalating responses to protest by a militarized police force have created dangerous conditions. About the only defense people have is some public attention to their plight. And now even that is being shut down by a series of intimidation tactics. Consider the following:

1) As the Washington Post states, its “reporter Wesley Lowery was detained by police on Wednesday while reporting on the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., following the fatal shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown by police over the weekend.” Huffington Post reporter Ryan Reilly had his head slammed against glass as he attempted to report on police action.

2) U.S. Courts of Appeals have affirmed the right to record the police. The Justice Department has offered clear, recent guidance on the topic.

3) As the Post’s Executive Editor has observed, the information blackout has been so pervasive that we are not even allowed to know who is executing it:

[Lowery was] illegally instructed to stop taking video of officers. Then he followed officers’ instructions to leave a McDonald’s — and after contradictory instructions on how to exit, he was slammed against a soda machine and then handcuffed. That behavior was wholly unwarranted and an assault on the freedom of the press to cover the news. The physical risk to Wesley himself is obvious and outrageous. After being placed in a holding cell, he was released with no charges and no explanation. He was denied information about the names and badge numbers of those who arrested him.

This is consistent with other anti-transparency measures in the dispute.

4) Police brutality has been a pervasive problem. We can only start a public conversation on the magnitude of the problem if people have the unfettered right to record law enforcement practices.

5) Many people have reported that police in Ferguson told them to turn off cameras and recording devices. Police refused to answer basic questions. Even major media organizations were told to leave.

6) Police tear-gassed journalists from Al Jazeera and local TV crews.

7) Local leaders are not safe, either. Both an alderman and a state senator were detained and tear-gassed.

The United States has not exactly distinguished itself in its treatment of journalists. In 2012, it fell to 47th in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, well behind countries like Surinam, Mali, and Slovakia, largely due to police harassment of photographers and videographers at Occupy Wall Street protests. How far should it fall if police can basically decide unilaterally to make entire cities “no First Amendment zones”? How can the US warn other countries not to “take military action against protesters,” if it allows an out-of-control force like Ferguson’s to plot a media blackout? This is a policy of order-at-all-costs, even if it means “law enforcers” breaking the law with impunity.

I will have more to say later on the underlying dispute (well covered by Mary Ann Franks and Jamelle Bouie). For now, all I can say is: we should be deeply worried about the broader campaign to create “urban battlespaces” in American cities. This is a dangerous amalgamation of police and military functions, thoughtlessly accelerated by the distribution of war-fighting equipment to local law enforcers around the country. Minimal standards of accountability require free access by the press.

How We’ll Know the Wikimedia Foundation is Serious About a Right to Remember

The “right to be forgotten” ruling in Europe has provoked a firestorm of protest from internet behemoths and some civil libertarians.* Few seem very familiar with classic privacy laws that govern automated data systems. Characteristic rhetoric comes from the Wikimedia Foundation:

The foundation which operates Wikipedia has issued new criticism of the “right to be forgotten” ruling, calling it “unforgivable censorship.” Speaking at the announcement of the Wikimedia Foundation’s first-ever transparency report in London, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said the public had the “right to remember”.

I’m skeptical of this line of reasoning. But let’s take it at face value for now. How far should the right to remember extend? Consider the importance of automated ranking and rating systems in daily life: in contexts ranging from credit scores to terrorism risk assessments to Google search rankings. Do we have a “right to remember” all of these-—to, say, fully review the record of automated processing years (or even decades) after it happens?

If the Wikimedia Foundation is serious about advocating a right to remember, it will apply the right to the key internet companies organizing online life for us. I’m not saying “open up all the algorithms now”—-I respect the commercial rationale for trade secrecy. But years or decades after the key decisions are made, the value of the algorithms fades. Data involved could be anonymized. And just as Asssange’s and Snowden’s revelations have been filtered through trusted intermediaries to protect vital interests, so too could an archive of Google or Facebook or Amazon ranking and rating decisions be limited to qualified researchers or journalists. Surely public knowledge about how exactly Google ranked and annotated Holocaust denial sites is at least as important as the right of a search engine to, say, distribute hacked medical records or credit card numbers.

So here’s my invitation to Lila Tretikov, Jimmy Wales, and Geoff Brigham: join me in calling for Google to commit to releasing a record of its decisions and data processing to an archive run by a third party, so future historians can understand how one of the most important companies in the world made decisions about how it ordered information. This is simply a bid to assure the preservation of (and access to) critical parts of our cultural, political, and economic history. Indeed, one of the first items I’d like to explore is exactly how Wikipedia itself was ranked so highly by Google at critical points in its history. Historians of Wikipedia deserve to know details about that part of its story. Don’t they have a right to remember?

*For more background, please note: we’ve recently hosted several excellent posts on the European Court of Justice’s interpretation of relevant directives. Though often called a “right to be forgotten,” the ruling in the Google Spain case might better be characterized as the application of due process, privacy, and anti-discrimination norms to automated data processing.

MarkelFest! at SEALS

Howard Wasserman and the team at Prawfs have organized a get-together at SEALS in memory of Dan Markel for this Saturday, and we at CoOp are honored to co-sponsor it. I’m sure this is the first of many conferences where Dan’s memory will be celebrated. Full details are here.

Failed Fiduciaries: Pension Funds’ Alliances with Private Equity Firms

As Yves Smith has reported, “the SEC has now announced that more than 50 percent of private equity firms it has audited have engaged in serious infractions of securities laws.” Smith, along with attorney Timothy Y. Fong, has been trying to shed light on PE arrangements for months, but has often been blocked by the very entities taken advantage of by the PE firms. As Smith concludes:

[I]nvestors have done a poor job of negotiating agreements so that they protect their interests and have done little if any monitoring once they’ve committed to a particular fund. As we’ll chronicle over the next few days, anyone who reads these agreements against the disclosures that investors are now required to make to the SEC and the public in their annual Form ADV can readily find numerous abuses. . . . But rather than live up to their fiduciary duties, pension funds that have invested in private equity funds haven’t merely sat pat as they were fleeced; even worse, they’ve been staunch defenders of the private equity industry’s special pleadings.

The SEC Chair has also harshly criticized the arrangements. States are making token efforts to reform matters after being exposed, but don’t expect much substantive to be done. The key problem is the distinction between those running pension funds, and what Jennifer Taub calls the “ultimate investors“–those whose accounts are being managed. Until their interests are better aligned, expect to see more sweetheart deals via “alternative investments.”

Beyond Too Big to Fail

After documenting extraordinary rent-seeking (and gaining) by financial institutions, John Quiggin comes to the following conclusion:

[A]ny serious attempt to stabilize the macroeconomy and return to sustainable improvements in living standards must involve a drastic reduction in the size and economic weight of the financial sector. Attempts at regulating derivatives markets have proved utterly futile in the face of massive incentives to take profitable risks, backed up by the guarantee of a government bailout.

The only remaining option is to separate these markets entirely from the socially useful parts of the financial system, then let them fail. Publicly guaranteed banks should be banned from engaging in all but the most basic financial transactions, such as issuing loans and bonds and accepting deposits. In particular, banks should be prohibited from doing any business with institutions engaged in speculative finance such as trade in derivatives. Such institutions should be required to raise all their funds directly from investors, on a “buyer beware” basis, and should never be bailed out, directly or indirectly, when they get into trouble.

The theme of separating out the utility-like, payment systems management functions of banks, from speculative finance, is something I’ve been hearing in a good deal of British thought on financial regulation.  I expect American policy makers to catch up soon.





Finance’s Failures: Lack of Accountability

This week I’ll be highlighting some excellent, recent articles on problems in the US financial sector.  First up is Jennifer Taub’s Reforming the Banks for Good.  On the way to introducing six valuable reforms, Taub notes the following:

 In 2013 JPMorgan Chase (the bank that bought WaMu) agreed to pay $13 billion to the U.S. government related in part to the sale of bad mortgages to government-sponsored housing enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The settlement was heralded by the government as the largest ever with a single institution in U.S. history. But the board of directors at JPMorgan Chase awarded CEO Jamie Dimon a 74 percent pay increase (to $20 million) that same year. Dennis Kelleher, president of Better Markets, called this move “as shocking as it is indefensible,” noting, “It’s a real slap in the face to the [Department of Justice] and financial regulators who think that the actions that they’ve taken in the last year have been appropriate to punish and deter JPMorgan Chase.” It is hard not to conclude that those who helped create a global financial calamity have not and will not suffer personal consequences.

I’m looking forward to reading Brandon Garrett’s Too Big to Jail this fall to explore some systemic responses to the problem. If it’s not solved, fines simply become a cost of doing business. And for too big to fail banks, no mere fine can deter bad conduct. If any particular penalty really endangered a bank, it would just be funneled back to the bank in the form of a bailout.