Category: Legal Theory


Economic Analysis of Tort Law, Why Bother?

In previous posts (here and here), I suggested that analytical modeling can be useful to better understand data breaches, information disclosure laws and the costs to both companies and individuals because of these laws. I’d like to now expand on those ideas.

To be clear, there are many kinds of models and modeling approaches but what I’m interested in is the economic analysis of tort law. For those not aware, this approach is concerned with the cost of accidents to an injurer and a victim and it analyzes how various policy rules (typically regulation or liability) can minimize the sum of those costs.

The way I’ve come to interpret and apply models (e.g. mathematical equations) is to illustrate how agent’s incentives change under different policy interventions. For example, if companies are forced to notify consumers of a data breach, will they be induced to spend more or less money protecting consumer data? Will individuals take more or less care once notified? Will these actions together increase or decrease overall social costs?

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Evolution of Privacy Breach Litigation?

In addition to empirical work on data breaches and breach disclosure laws, I’ve also become very interested in data breach litigation. While plaintiffs have seen very little success with legal actions brought against companies that suffer data breaches, I still believe there is some very interesting empirical work that can be done regarding these lawsuits.

In a recent post, Daniel Solove cited  a paper by Andrew Serwin (found here) who described in great detail the legal theories and statutes  that plaintiffs use when bringing legal actions against companies that suffer data breaches. It isn’t my purpose to repeat that work, but rather to identify an interesting pattern that appears to have emerged over the past 5 to 10 years of privacy breach litigation. Special thanks to Paul Bond of Reed Smith LLP who first brought this to my attention. 

Category 1: You lost my data, now I will sue you.
This first category could be characterized by what is classically considered a data breach: plaintiffs suing a company simply because their personally identifiable information (PII) was lost, stolen, or improperly disposed. For example, Choicepoint, TJX, Hannaford, Heartland, etc. Plaintiffs claim that this disclosure of data has harmed, or will harm them, and that they are justified in seeking relief for actual fraud losses, monitoring costs, future expected loss, or emotional distress. Plaintiffs bring these actions under many kinds of tort and contract theories, but generally lose because they’re unable to prove a harm that’s legally recognized (as we discuss further below). The defining characteristic of this category is that the burden lies with the alleged victims to show they were harmed in a legally meaningful way.

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Three Policy Interventions for Reducing Privacy Harms

Thanks so much to Danielle and Concurring Opinions for inviting me to blog. This is an exciting opportunity and I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you. Hopefully you will find these posts interesting.

There are many policy interventions that legislators can impose to reduce harms caused by one party to another. Two that are very often compared are safety regulations (mandated standards) and liability. They lend themselves well to comparison because they’re generally employed on either side of some harmful event (e.g. data breach or toxic spill): ex ante regulations are applied before the harm, and ex post liability is applied after the harm.

A third approach, one that we might consider ‘sitting between’ regulation and liability, is information disclosure (e.g. data breach disclosure (security breach notification) laws). I’d like to take a few paragraphs to compare these alternatives in regards to data breaches and privacy harms.

Three Interventions


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Virtual Perils of Cyber Hate and the Need for a Conception of Digital Citizenship

Although intermediaries’ services can facilitate and reinforce a citizenry’s activities, they pose dangers that work to undermine them.  Consider the anonymous and pseudonymous nature of online discourse.  Intermediaries permit individuals to create online identities unconnected to their legal identities.  Freed from a sense of accountability for their online activities, citizens might engage in productive discourse in ways that they might not if directly correlated with their offline identities.  Yet the sense of anonymity breeds destructive behavior as well.  Social science research suggests that people behave aggressively when they believe that they cannot be observed and caught.  Destructive online behavior spills offline, working a fundamental impairment of citizenship.

For instance, digital expressions of hatred helped inspire the 1999 shooting of African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Jews in suburban Chicago by Benjamin Smith, a member of the white supremacist group World Church of the Creator (WCOTC) that promotes racial holy war.  Just months before the shootings, Smith told documentary filmmaker Beverly Peterson that: “It wasn’t really ‘til I got on the Internet, read some literature of these groups that . . . it really all came together.”  More recently, the Facebook group Kick a Ginger Day urged members to get their “steel toes ready” for a day of attacking individuals with red hair. The site achieved its stated goal: students punched and kicked children with red hair and dozens of Facebook members claimed credit for attacks.

Cyber hate can produce so much psychological damage as to undermine individuals’ ability to engage in public discourse.  For instance, posters on a white supremacist website targeted Bonnie Jouhari, a civil rights advocate and mother of a biracial girl.  They revealed Ms. Jouhari’s home address and her child’s picture.  The site showed a picture of Ms. Jouhari’s workplace exploding in flames next to the threat that “race traitors” are “hung from the neck from the nearest tree or lamp post.”  Posters included bomb-making instructions and a picture of a hooded Klansman holding a noose.  Aside from moving four times, Ms. Jouhari and her daughter have withdrawn completely from public life; neither has a driver’s license, a voter registration card or a bank account because they don’t want to create a public record of their whereabouts.

Search engines also ensure the persistence and production of cyber hate that undermines citizens’ capability to engage in offline and online civic engagement.  Because search engines reproduce information cached online, people cannot depend upon time’s passage to alleviate the damage that online postings cause.  Unlike leaflets or signs affixed to trees that would decay or disappear not long after their publication, now search engines index all of the content hosted by social media intermediaries, producing it instantaneously. Read More


Book Review: Raz’s Between Authority and Interpretation

Joseph Raz, Between Authority and Interpretation (Oxford University Press, 2009), 424 pp.

H. L. A. Hart’s The Concept of Law (1961) revitalized the field of jurisprudence in much the same way Rawls’ A Theory of Justice gave new impetus to political philosophy a decade after. A Concept of Law presented a new theory of law blending arguments from the philosophy of language and previous versions of positivism. (Rawls himself claimed to have gotten the idea of proceduralism from Hart. See A Theory of Justice, p. 48) But as is often the case, a theory needs an adversary to reveal its deepest implications. This adversary came first with Lon Fuller’s “Positivism and Fidelity to Law”, a rebuttal to Hart’s essay “Positivism and the Separation of Law and Morals” (both 1958), and then with a series of essays by Ronald Dworkin published successively as Taking Rights Seriously (1977) and Law’s Empire (1986).

Hart’s positivism argues roughly that law and morality are at least separate in the sense that law cannot be reduced to morality. This means that we can study law scientifically without getting involved in disputes about substantive questions concerning the good. But since it is clear that in order to be obeyed, laws ought not merely to rely on force, laws require some source of authority which can only come through deliberation. Such deliberation, however, is need not be moral but can be thought of as merely normative. Hart holds that the authority of the law is provided by rules of recognition: these are secondary or meta-rules which specify the authority of law derived from particular social practices. A rule of recognition, for instance, is that, in the United States, laws are passed by congress according to a certain procedure. This specifies the way the law receives its authority but not what the law is (which is a matter of primary rules).

Much of the debate surrounding Hart’s theory has been about whether the rule of recognition could indeed do without moral support, that is, whether the separation of law and morality could be maintained. Dworkin, as Fuller had argued before him, contended that the rule of recognition could not be normative without also being moral because, in the case of legal interpretation for instance, the law will need to be extended to deal with difficult cases (a point Hart vacillated on). Extending the law can only be done through recourse to extra-legal principles of controversial political morality or policy, not already specified by law. So law is not free standing after all.

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Defragmenting the Fragmentation Critique

I am grateful to Frank Pasquale and Glenn Cohen for the opportunity to comment on The Fragmentation of U.S. Health Care(Einer Elhauge ed., 2010). This book is the first of its kind, and I believe it will influence scholarly debate about the best way to organize, regulate, and fund health care for the next decade.

In Chapter One, Einer Elhauge provides the frame through which readers are to understand fragmentation. Fragmentation occurs as “multiple decision makers make a set of health care decisions that would be made better though unified decision making” (p. 1). The tension, as he views it, is between forms of desirable integration and undesirable disintegration (p. 2). He discusses a spectrum of fragmentation, moving from the narrowest conception—treating a patient for a particular illness (lack of coordinated care)—to treating a patient over time (breaks in access to health care at various life stages) (p. 1). He also considers patients in groups, from small patient groupings (also breaks in access to care), to patients within a broader population, such as the state or nation (p. 1). Elhauge acknowledges that the book focuses on fragmentation at the individual patient level because “probably it is less controversial that the care received by an individual patient should reflect some sort of coherent common plan” (p. 2). Elhauge argues that in order to best reform health care, policy– and law–makers will require first either “a theory about optimal integration of decision making . . . or evidence of the sort of bad results that must reflect excessive disintegration” (p. 3). The book focuses on identifying, and responding to, the latter, and it does so admirably.

My critique pertains to the narrow view of fragmentation. By framing the fragmentation discussion as a desirable integration–undesirable disintegration dichotomy, the problems of fragmentation cannot be seen to their fullest extent. The integration–disintegration dichotomy assumes that existing legal structures are appropriate and seeks to work within them. As a result, assumptions and beliefs upon which these structures are built are taken as sound. The most troubling assumption is that illness is viewed as exceptional, rather than as part of the human condition. We are all universally vulnerable to illness and the subsequent disadvantage it creates. Further, few people fall into a concrete “sick” or “well” category—most of us fall somewhere along a continuum of wellness.

Framing the fragmentation debate in terms of existing legal structures has two significant consequences. First, it deeply entrenches a fallacy within current laws (and many of the reforms addressed in the book) that individuals are fully-functioning over a life-time, capable of laboring for wages (which may provide health care), and able to form and order certain preferences that allow them to participate actively and efficiently in the market. Dominant legal, political, and economic theories embrace a concept of the “liberal subject” that assumes that individuals are able to enter society and participate on equal ground. This view does not appreciate and respond to our universal vulnerability to illness, particularly to catastrophic illness.

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Money Matters in Ongoing Marriage Law

Married life is characterized by a sharing norm. As I described in an earlier post, spouses commit to and in fact engage deeply in sharing behavior, including a shared family economy. Overwhelmingly, spouses pool economic resources, including labor, and decide together how to allocate them to benefit the family as a whole.

In addition to its affects in the paid labor market (see my last post), sharing money matters inside a functioning marriage.  It shapes the couple relationship as well as each partner individually. Research shows that in an ongoing marriage, money is a relational tool. For example, making money a communal asset is a way to demonstrate intimacy and commitment, and that can nurture a couple’s bond. Yet, in some circumstances, an assignment of resources to just one spouse can also be understood (by both partners) to be appropriate and deserved—a recognition of the individual within a sharing framework. Conversely, it is also possible that spouses’ monetary dealings can undermine individual autonomy and the relationship as well. For example, one person might exercise authority over money in a way that disregards the other. Accordingly, power to influence financial resource allocation within the family is important for individual spouses and for togetherness.

It becomes a special concern then, that sharing patterns in marriage are gendered.  As highlighted in my previous post, role specialization remains a part of modern intimate partner relations. Particularly true for married couples, men continue to perform more as breadwinners, and women more as caregivers. As a result, women tend to have reduced earning power in the market. How does this market asymmetry translate into economic power at home? Happily, in a significant departure from the past, a majority of couples report that they share financial decisionmaking power roughly equally. Indeed, most married couples today endorse gender equality as an important value in their relationship. However, in a significant minority of marriages, spouses agree that husbands have more economic power. For some couples then, a husband’s breadwinning role and/or perhaps his gender, confers authority in contentious money matters.

How should law governing an ongoing marriage respond to these sharing dynamics? Consider this hypothetical fact situation. A husband has a stock account from which he plans to make a gift to his sister who he feels really needs the money. The husband suspects that his wife would not approve of the gift. Even though the wife too loves the sister, she believes the sister is irresponsible with money. Let’s assume that the money in that stock account was acquired while the parties were married, and that it came from the market wages of one or both of the spouses earned during marriage. It was a product of the couple’s shared life. Does contemporary law allow the husband to give his sister the gift without her consent? Without even telling her? How should legal power over the money be allocated?

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Future of the Internet Symposium: (Im)Perfect Enforcement

Prohibition wasn’t working. President Hoover assembled the Wickersham Commission to investigate why. The Commission concluded that despite an historic enforcement effort—including the police abuses that made the Wickersham Commission famous—the government could not stop everyone from drinking. Many people, especially in certain city neighborhoods, simply would not comply. The Commission did not recommend repeal at this time, but by 1931 it was just around the corner.

Five years later an American doctor working in a chemical plant made a startling discovery. Several workers began complaining that alcohol was making them sick, causing most to stop drinking it entirely—“involuntary abstainers,” as the doctor, E.E. Williams, later put it. It turns out they were in contact with a chemical called disulfiram used in the production of rubber. Disulfiram is well-tolerated and water-soluble. Today, it is marketed as the popular anti-alcoholism drug Antabuse.

Were disulfiram discovered just a few years earlier, would federal law enforcement have dumped it into key parts of the Chicago or Los Angeles water supply to stamp out drinking for good? Probably not. It simply would not have occurred to them. No one was regulating by architecture then. To dramatize this point: when New York City decided twenty years later to end a string of garbage can thefts by bolting the cans to the sidewalk, the decision made the front page of the New York Times. The headline read: “City Bolts Trash Baskets To Walks To End Long Wave Of Thefts.”

In an important but less discussed chapter in The Future of the Internet, Jonathan Zittrain explores our growing taste and capacity for “perfect enforcement.” Read More


Clarifying Commodification

I’ve found both in published work and in classroom and workshop discourse that people often mean different things when they talk about commodification concerns as an argument for blocked exchanges – e.g., forbidding the sale of kidneys from live donors, prostitution, the sale of surrogacy services, etc.

I thought it might be useful to try and sort out some of these different meanings (for those looking for a more formal discussion with citations, this old paper of mine may be useful). This is my own classification (though it builds off work by my colleague Michael Sandel among others). I will be interested to see if others think one should add to or reformulate the taxonomy.  It is also worth emphasizing at the threshold that while money is the focus of most anti-commodificationist arguments that for each version barter can also give rise to the same objections.

At the top-level we can divide commodification into three large categories (the 3 C’s if you will): Coercion, Corruption, and Crowding-Out. For the purposes of this post my goal is not to evaluate these arguments, just to parse them better.

(1) Coercion:

(a) Voluntariness. This concern, also known as exploitation, is framed as concern about the voluntariness of the transaction in a way that demands more than minimal notions of consent.  It is the fear that only the poor will sell organs or that only destitute women will consent to act as commercial surrogates, and argues for blocking the exchange to protect those populations. It thus depends on some empirical facts about the population the argument seeks to protect; one occasionally seeks proposals to limit organ or surrogacy services sales to people above a certain income bracket to blunt the concern.  It also depends on views about the validity of blocking an exchange due to these somewhat paternalistic concerns.  Thus, sometimes it is argued that it is hypocritical to block an exchange preventing a badly-off person from improving their station in life unless we are also committed to a redistributive plan that makes them as well-off as they would be if the exchange was permitted.   It is important to understand that this objection is not focused on a claim that the buyer and seller are giving up unequally (in amount, see below regarding mismatches of type) valued things, the “raw deal” problem that parallels one strand of substantive unconscionability doctrine in contracts; instead, it is about the seller’s poverty and their susceptibility towards “an offer you can’t refuse” even if the good is valued fairly.  While one solution to some forms of unconscionability may be to re-write the terms to be more favorable to the seller, adding extra compensation here would worsen not improve the exchange from the point of view of this objection.

(b) Access: Somewhat less frequently the objection is made almost in reverse. While the voluntariness version treats the exchange as representing a “bad” that the poorer party in the exchange suffers in one respect involuntarily, the access variant instead views the exchange as representing a “good” that only the better-off party has access to because of the existence of the market.  For example, the sale of “premium” eggs is something only the wealthy will have access to, or the during Civil War the practice of commutation where one could pay three hundred dollars to avoid serving in the draft was only available to wealthier stratas of society. This objection also depends on notions of background unjust inequalities in resource distribution to get going.

Price caps may be a partial solution to either form of the coercion objection because they will lower the price to make it not-so-attractive as to make us question voluntariness (the “offer you can’t refuse”) and also move the purchase of the good into the range of access for more of the population.  It is only a partial solution because it usually results in shortages.  One could also imagine “mixed” systems that do better at addressing one concern than the other — so the state could be the only permitted buyer of organs and then distribute them through the current transplant system rather than willingness to pay — this would go a long way to blunting the access concern, but not necessarily the voluntariness one (and indeed might make the corruption objection below even worse).

(2) Corruption: A second version of the objection is that a market exchange “corrupts,” “taints,” or “denigrates” the things being exchanged — for instance, the argument that prostitution devalues women’s bodies by attaching a price tag to their sexuality.  Cass Sunstein offers a good starting formulation of the corruption argument: an exchange is corrupting when “the relevant goods cannot be aligned along a single metric without doing violence to our considered judgments about how these goods are best characterized.”  Incommensurability and Kinds of Valuation: Some Applications in Law, in INCOMMENSURABILITY, INCOMPARABILITY, AND PRACTICAL REASON 234, 238 (Ruth Chang ed., 1997).  More specifically, one might suggest that there are various “spheres” (sometimes called “modes”) of valuation, and an exchange is corrupting when it ignores the differences between these spheres of valuation and forces us to value all goods in the same way.  For example, exchanging children for money corrupts the value of children because money and children belong in different spheres of valuation.

As I have described in depth, that requires both a theory of sphere differentiation and a theory of what it is about exchanges that “does violence,” neither of which are that easy to articulate.  For present purposes, though, I want to merely distinguish versions of the argument along two dimensions.

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Hypotheticals, the Classroom, and Moral Biology

Hypotheticals are a ubiquitous pedagogical tool in both the law and philosophy classrooms. I have recently been thinking about the different functions they serve and whether they are well-suited for the weight we give them. These reflections were prompted by a conference on “Moral Biology,” hosted by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School (which I co-direct), in cooperation with The Project on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School, the Gruter Institute, the Harvard Program on Ethics and Health, and the MacArthur Law and Neuroscience Project.

I may blog a little bit later about some other of the marvelous things I learned over these two days, but for now I wanted to concentrate on some thoughts that stemmed from a public portion of the conference that can be seen here, involving Josh Greene from Harvard’s Psychology Department, William Fitzpatrick from the University of Rochester’s Philosophy Department, Adina Roskies from Dartmouth’s Philosophy Department, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong from Duke’s Philosophy Department, and Tim Scanlon, from Harvard’s philosophy department.

At around the 43 to 50 minute mark in the video, Josh discusses Trolley Problems (which ask participants a thought experiment about whether to divert a trolley from one track to another with many versions of the hypothetical) and an experiment done on them by Fiery Cushman (and a collaborator, Switzgable I believe, I could not find the actual paper) in Josh’s lab.  In the experiment, before being asked whether they would endorse the principle of double effect, ethicists with PhDs were asked to reason about variants of the Trolley problem (switch vs. footbridge) presented in different orders. The experiment found that if one varied the order in which the versions were presented (but always presented all of them,) ethicists reached different conclusions about whether they would endorse the principle. [This is Josh’s description in the video, again if anyone can find the paper he is discussing I will try and like to that].  The result is surprising in that it appears even those with PhD training in ethics are susceptible to order effects in reasoning about a very fundamental issue.

As Josh concedes, and others (in the panel and in written pieces discussing his work emphasize) the fact that these ordering effects occur is not itself fatal to the enterprise of philosophical analysis using intuitions. It depends on further views about how one uses these kinds of intuitions in the analysis. For present purposes, though, I want to partially side-step that question in favor of thinking about the law classroom, and how this experiment might should us a little more careful about the way we use hypotheticals.

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