Tuesday, March 17, 2015
One of the great pleasures of working on the blog is the opportunity to have virtual colleagues as a subject-matter specific supplement to one's local colleagues. I have for many years admired Nancy Kim's scholarship, and she has been for me, a sounding board and a gateway for entering into the scholarship on electronic contracting, with an especial focus on wrap contracts.
Now, I am happy to announce that we have collaborated on an article, "Internet Giants as Quasi-Governmental Actors and the Limits of Contractual Consent." The article is forthcoming with the Missouri Law Review and available in draft on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Although the government’s data-mining program relied heavily on information and technology that the government received from private companies, relatively little of the public outrage generated by Edward Snowden’s revelations was directed at those private companies. We argue that the myth of contractual consent muted criticisms that otherwise might be directed at the real data-mining masterminds. By clicking “agree,” consumers are deemed to have consented to the use of their private information in ways that they would not agree to had they known the purposes to which their information would be put and the entities (including the federal government) with whom their information would be shared. We also question the distinction between governmental actors and private actors in this realm, as the Internet giants increasingly exploit contractual mechanisms to operate with quasi-governmental powers in their relations with consumers. We propose that, in their efforts to better protect consumer data, regulators and policymakers should demand more than mere contractual consent as an indicator of consumers’ grant of permission for the use of their data.
Here is a short (2 minute) video of me discussing the article:
I have been traveling the past two weeks, leading a group of 25 of my law students on a two-credit course on International Humanitarian Law in Israel and Palestine. How does a U.S. contracts prof teach a course on the law of armed conflict in Israel? I get by with a little help from my friends. We teamed up with an Israeli law college, Sha'arei Mishpat Academic Center (SMAC), and I had the pleasure of c0-designing, co-directing and co-teaching the program with the very accomplished Professor Yaël Ronen (pictured). My students' experience was enriched by the fact that eight Israeli students from SMAC also participated in the course.
We partnered with Mejdi Tours, which provided us with two tour guides, one Jewish Israeli, one Muslim (Palestinian) Israeli. Together they gave us their versions of the dual narrative that continues to unwind, side-by-side, each informing the other even when the two sides do not acknowledge the other's perspective. Nothing beats teaching a course in the place where the subject matter of the course has been written and is being supplemented on a continual basis.
My students chronicled our trip as we went, and those chronicles are in the process of being posted on a Mejdi Tours blog. While we were teaching our students international humanitarian law, they gave me a lesson in the art of the selfie.
Thanks to Myanna Dellinger and Nancy Kim for keeping stuff happening on the blog while I was off on my frolic and detour. We now return to our regular programming. . . .
Thursday, February 26, 2015
Things may be a big sleepy here on the blog for the next two weeks. I leave today for a two-week Spring Break course with my law students.
I hope that I will be able to post a few times during the trip, at least keeping up with our regular weekly features, but things might get a big hectic once I leave the country.
Monday, February 16, 2015
Back in 2013, we mused about the seeming disconnect between public outrage at NSA data mining and the lack of comparable outrage with respect to private data mining. Nancy Kim and I have been writing in this area, and a recent report in the ABA Journal provides additional fodder for our scholarship.
One of the things that makes television's "smart" these days is that they have the ability to respond to voice commands. If you have this feature on, the television transmits your information to a third party, according to Samsung. If you turn the voice recognition feature off, your television still gathers the data but it does not transmit it.
Thursday, November 27, 2014
This is a rather unconventional list. I have just gone back into our archives and picked out one my favorite Meredith posts from each of the ten years since she started blogging here. It's amazing how well I remember each of these posts!
Meredith Vintage 2014: John Oliver and Sarah Silverman Tackle Payday Loans
Meredith Vintage 2013: Breaking: Bieber Requires NDA of Guests in His Home
Meredith Vintage 2012: Markets on the Mekong
Meredith Vintage 2011: Don't Buy This: 'Tis the Cyber Season of Reverse Psychology
Meredith Vintage 2010: A Hairy Breach of Contract Suit against Paris Hilton
Meredith Vintage 2009: Can Mad Men Bring Sexy Back to Contracts?
Meredeith Vintage 2008: Brown on Halloween, Promises & Signed Documents
Meredith Vintage 2007: Law Prof Takes on Cell Phone Company
Meredith Vintage 2006: British Court Must Watch Jerry Springer Show
Meredith Vintage 2005: The Commonality of Computers, French Fries and Arbitration
It was hard to make these choices. Lots of competition in the Meredith archives!
Friday, November 21, 2014
Meredith Miller started blogging here before I did. She holds the record for the contributing editor with the longest tenrue on the blog.
Her lively, quirky posts were one of the things that attracted me to this site and made it worthwhile to keep coming back. She has been a steady companion, sounding board and dedicated contributor to our blog, and we will miss her contributions.
But life moves on, and we can only thank Meredith and wish her well in her new endeavors. In her farewell e-mail to the rest of us, Meredith referenced her blogger's guilt. Blogs are like sharks; they either move or die. There have been many weeks when I despaired of finding the time and the content to keep this blog lively when Meredith would post a story that I knew would attract interest and buy the rest of us some time away from the blog. After nearly ten years of providing us stories and laughts, he has certainly earned her release from blogger's guilt.
I am hoping to compile a top ten list next week of my favorite Meredith posts. Please feel free to nominate your favorites in the comments.
Thursday, November 20, 2014
I have been a contributing editor at ContractsProf since 2005. The blog has provided a wonderful platform to share contracts-related news stories (as bizarre as possible), summarize important recent cases and self-promote my scholarship. When Frank Snyder roped me into this nearly a decade ago, alot of things were different in varying degrees, especially: the Internet, law schools and the market for legal services. Frank told me at the time that blogging might seem thankless, but it is not. He said that every so often you meet someone at a conference and they realize you are that person who pointed out the connection between Eminem and Sister Antillico and the NDA Justin Bieber presents to house guests. Frank was right. I've met a lot of great people through the blog and its lead to meaningful conversations about contract law and other things.
One of the most rewarding parts of blogging is the record of posts we've created over the years. Sometimes I will do a "quick and dirty" search on Google for the answer to a contracts question and I find the answer on this blog.
I have come to the realization that I just do not have the time to commit to the blog right now. In fact, earlier this week I made a list of things I was going to quit (quite liberating; highly recommended). I am clearing the decks to focus on writing projects and other pursuits, including my new role at Touro as Director of Solo & Small Practice Initiatives. It is where my heart is right now, and I am going to follow that.
In short, thanks Jeremy and previous blog overlords for letting me holdover this long.
With much gratitude for this opportunity, here's a reprise of turkey leftovers in time for Thanksgiving.
Friday, October 24, 2014
Yesterday's New York Times included a "The Upshot" column by Jeremy B. Merrill. The print version was entitled Online, It's Easy To Lose Your Right to Sue [by the way, why can't the Times be consistent in its capitaliziation of "to"?], but the online version's title tells us how easy, One-Third of Top Websites Restrict Customers' Right to Sue. The usual way they restrict the right is through arbitration provisions and class-action waivers. They do so through various wrap mechanisms so that consumers are bound when they click "I agree" to terms they likely have not read and perhaps have not even glanced at.
Some websites attempt to bind consumers by stating somewhere on their websites that consumers are bound to the website's and the company's terms simply by using the company's website or its products (I'm looking at you, General Mills). The only thing surprising about this, given the Supreme Court's warm embrace of binding arbitration and class action waivers, is that two-thirds of websites still do not avail themselves of this mechanism for avoiding adverse publicity and legal accountability.
As I was reading this article, it started to sound very familiar -- a lot like reading this blog. And just as I was beginning to wonder why the Times was not ' quoting our own Nancy Kim, the article did just that:
When courts decide whether a website’s terms can be enforced, they look for two things, Ms. Kim said: First, whether the user had notice of the site’s rules; and second, whether the user signaled his or her agreement to those rules. Courts have ruled that simply continuing to use the site signals agreement. When browsewrap agreements have been thrown out, as in the Zappos case, courts have said that the site’s link to the terms wasn’t displayed prominently enough to assume visitors had noticed it.
Congratulations to Nancy on such prominent notice of her scholarship!
And congratulations to the Times for paying attention!
Tuesday, October 7, 2014
Introducing our Guest Blogger, Robin Kar's Coda to Our Virtual Symposium on More That You Wanted to Know
Professor Robin Kar is a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Illinois College of Law. He is a faculty affiliate of the Illinois Law and Philosophy Program, the Beckman Institute for Science and Technology (in the Cognitive Psychology Research Group), the Illinois Program in Law, Behavior and he Social Sciences, and the Illinois Network for Neurocultures. He is Director of the Illinois Center for Interdisciplinary and Comparative Jurisprudence, and a Project Leader for the Illinois Program on Cultures of Law in Global Contexts. He has a PhD in philosophy, with a special focus on moral psychology, moral, legal and social philosophy, meta-ethics, rational choice and game theory, and the foundations of economics and the social sciences. Some of his work on moral psychology, the psychology of obligation, and the nature of law and legal obligation can be found in pieces like The Deep Structure of Law and Morality, The Psychological Foundations of Human Rights, Hart’s Response to Exclusive Legal Positivism, and The Two Faces of Morality.
Readers of the blog are also likely already familiar with Professor Kar’s recent SSRN Top Ten hits on contract law and theory, Contract as Empowerment: A New Theory of Contract and Contract as Empowerment Part II: Harmonizing the Case Law, along with his piece The Challenge of Boilerplate. Kar teaches contract law and wide array of jurisprudence and legal theory courses, including seminars like morals, markets and the law.
Professor Kar’s posts serve as a sort of coda to our our virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure.
Professor Kar will present his argument in four parts:
Part I: The Proverbial “Egg” suggests that three ungrounded premises of the classical law and economics movement have often caused many people to think that mandatory disclosure regimes have an unwarranted degree of support.
Part II: Breaking Out of the Shell describes More Than You Wanted to Know as emerging from the classical law and economics paradigm but as able to challenge one of its central dogmas because it is willing to depart from two of the three core assumptions associated with that classical tradition. The book seeks to answer psychological and empirical questions based on real psychological and empirical research rather than ungrounded psychological premises and abstract theoretical modeling. This explains why the book is better able to track the truth about mandatory disclosure regimes.
Part III: What Is This Emerging New Life? outlines a better and even more broadly interdisciplinary paradigm that Professor Kar sees as potentially emerging from these developments. This research program would draw not only on psychological and empirical research to answer any psychological and empirical questions relevant to contract and consumer protection law but also on a broader range of philosophical methods of argumentation to answer any normative questions relevant to these topics. Part III argues that further development toward this interdisciplinary collaboration is needed for contract law studies to better track the truth.
Part IV: Discarding the Last Remnants of the Old Shell suggests that we still have a way to go in freeing ourselves from the limitations of the classical law and economics paradigm. It describes how this problem still causes many scholars to ask the wrong normative questions when asking how best to reform consumer protection law—as illustrated both by More Than You Wanted to Know and many of the responses to it in this symposium. This has led to an increase in knowledge about the psychological and empirical facts, but even more uncertainty and less consensus over how best to reform consumer protection law in light of them. This problem can only be fully addressed by attending better to the right normative questions.
So what are the right normative questions, you ask? Stay tuned to find out!
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Below are links to the posts in our virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure.
Introducing the Virtual Symposium on "More That You Wanted to Know" (The authors' introduction)
More Than You Needed to Know Symposium: The First Six (Introducing the first six contributors)
More Than You Needed to Know Symposium: The Next Five (Introducing the second group of five contributors)
Thanks to all who participated!
Monday, September 29, 2014
After reading our book and the blogs about it, you are surely in danger of hearing more than you want to know and even more surely apprehensive about a response in which we battle and bicker point by point. Our critics have described our thesis accurately: More Than You Wanted To Know does argue that mandated disclosure is the most common and least successful form of regulation today, that it cannot be fixed, and that it does more harm than good. But our critics puzzle us in some basic ways we will briefly explore.
Our objection to mandated disclosure is not an objection to information. People need information, seek it, and commonly use it wisely, especially when they want and even enjoy it. Advertising would not thrive were people indifferent to information, nor would libraries, newspapers, universities, or Google. But mandated disclosure is not just about information; it is a regulatory technique that directs quite particular kinds of information at quite particular times in quite particular ways. It aspires to give people information they did not seek and do not like to use. Information they often find irrelevant to their decision. Information that is often repellently complex and baffling. Information that thus requires training to use well. All this while people are contending with counterparties who are well informed and have interests of their own.
Our critics in this symposium and elsewhere widely acknowledge the strength of our core arguments that mandated disclosure’s record is poor and its challenges great. In area after area, mandated disclosure’s history is the same: high hopes that people will be liberated from ignorance, made at last truly autonomous, and led to improved decisions. In area after area, able and thoughtful people have labored decade after decade to realize these hopes. After all these years, those hopes are still thwarted. One might have expected, then, that all this thought and effort and ability would be turned to seeking better regulatory methods and persuading law-makers to use them. Instead, two responses are common: One is to argue that disclosure will work if only we can at last learn to do it better; the other is to shift the goals of disclosure from helping people make choices to more general benefits more indirectly achieved.
For example, immense creativity has been harnessed to solve the problem of conveying complex information to people ill-situated to interpret it. We devote a chapter in the book to arguing that simplification—the deus ex machina of contemporary disclosurism—has not only disappointed its advocates’ eager hopes, it has barely budged the meter. True, there are always more techniques to try, like Ryan Calo’s “visceral” disclosures, Bar-Gill’s “use pattern” disclosure, or Porat-Strahilevitz’ “personalized” disclosures. These might succeed where others failed, but let’s make sure we understand how formidable their task is and how discouraging the history of such efforts has been.
Take Lauren Willis’ example of the CARD Act’s simplified disclosure, a payment “nudge” invented in the era of “smart” disclosure to prompt debtors to pay balances faster. Willis—one the most sophisticated critics of disclosures in consumer law—calls this regime successful even while recognizing that its benefits are not “dramatic.” How undramatic can benefits be before we stop advocating simplified disclosure? A recent study based on government data finds few cardholders responded to this nudge, that those who did saved only $24 on average, and that the total effect of this disclosure reform was $71 million annualized savings. In a $750 billion market, this benefit is so undramatic that we doubt it’s worth its design costs. (Luckily, the CARD Act did more than simplify disclosure. It also limited fees and saved consumers—especially lower income people—many billions of dollars.)
Can disclosure serve other goals than improving people’s decisions? Can it “improve accountability”? Can firms be deterred from bad conduct even if disclosures go unread? If disclosure helps the government improve enforcement actions, then the answer is yes. But now we are talking about a different regulatory animal, where information is reported to the government and used as a baseline for command and control, like enforcing emission standards or collecting taxes. When, instead, disclosure is targeted at the public, does it improve accountability? Hospital report cards have almost no detectable effect on the quality of medical care, but hospitals worried for their reputation seem to be sending high-risk patients (especially minorities) away. How is that for accountability? What evidence is there that campaign-finance disclosure reduces money’s corruption of politics? Or that Miranda stops police coercion? Instead of sanitizing public life, disclosure is often a fig leaf to make disreputable behavior acceptable. The rich buy influence—and file their disclosures. Police, as Stuntz shows, use abusive tactics—and recite Miranda warnings. Lenders lure gullible borrowers into disastrous debt—and making everything kosher with their neat stack of disclosures.
While our critics are rich in new refinements on disclosure and in new purposes for disclosure to serve, they are not rich in responses to one of our central concerns: that mandated disclosure is incompatible with basic features of human nature, with the way that people live their lives and make their decisions. Unless human nature changes or people live differently, refinements in mandated disclosure can do little and new purposes for mandated disclosure will be increasingly peripheral.
So what do we propose instead? We propose a moratorium on mandated disclosure because we want real problems to be addressed with real solutions. Are credit card fees obnoxious? Regulate them. Are medical charges unconscionable? Face up to the perplexities of medical costs. Do firms cheat customers? Punish them. Do conflicts of interest distort incentives? Decide whether the distortion is great enough to justify prohibiting the conflict. All these solutions are politically hard, and some of them may be politically unattainable. But is that a good reason to encourage law-makers to persist in solutions that, while politically feasible, don’t work?
Thursday, September 25, 2014
Ben-Shahar & Schneider Symposium Part XI B: David Vladeck, Living in a Post-Disclosure World, Part B
This is the eleventh in a series of posts that are part of a virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure. Biographies for the second week's contributors can be found here. The authors' introduction to the symposium can be found here.
David C. Vladeck is a Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, where he teaches federal courts, civil procedure, administrative law, and a seminar on First Amendment litigation. Professor Vladeck recently returned to the law school after serving for nearly four years as the Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.
This is the second of a two-part post. The first can be found here.
My commentary on More Than You Needed to Know picks up where Ben-Shahar and Schneider’s critique of mandatory disclosure leaves off; that is, how to reform the process to move to less bad disclosure regimes.
I have three modest points: In yesterday’s post, I argued that there are disclosure regimes that work. We should explore them to see why. In today’s post, I will argue that there are tools that can be used to address some of the flaws that Omri and Carl rightly identify and criticize. They must be employed. Finally, my tenure at the FTC taught me that mandatory disclosures are often an effective way to ensure accountability. That virtue is worth exploiting.
2. Fix disclosures. As Omri and Carl point out, disclosures often fail because they are designed to fail. True, but that state of affairs is not inevitable. Legislatures and regulatory agencies can mandate that disclosures do just that: Convey important information to consumers concisely, in plain English, and at the right moment, and nothing more.
Let’s do a thought experiment with privacy policies, which are rightly the poster child for disclosures that go unread. Let’s assume that companies were forced to abide by the following simple rules:
(2) Tell consumers what they need to know and nothing else. Next, imagine that the policies stated clearly and concisely the uses to which one’s personal data would be put. No other statement would be permitted, especially the long prefatory comments about how much the company really “cares” about your privacy. And no prevarication would be permitted. If the data will be given or sold to a third party, that fact – along with the identity of the third parties (and affiliates) and the uses the third party would put the data – would have to be disclosed. If the company wants to reserve the right to sell the data as it sees fit, the company would have to disclose in bold letters: “We reserve the right to sell your personal data to whomever we want!”
(3) Make the legal disclaimers and boilerplate a separate “disclosure”. Most privacy policies are incomprehensible because they are written by lawyers expert in what Senator Elizabeth Warren calls the art of “wordbarf” (her term, not mine) and focus mainly on disclaiming legal liability, not on “disclosing” the key information.
(5) Make sure that there is a robust default. Disclosure regimes are too often stand-alone efforts to regulate, employed as a sop to beat back efforts to impose more stringent regulation. Default rules are often needed so that if the disclosure fails, the presumption should be that the default rule remains in place.
I could go on. But you see my point. Today most disclosures are carefully engineered by lawyers and experts on human behavior not to be read, or to be discounted because of other claims more prominently displayed. If you want to see how sophisticated these obfuscation efforts can be, take a look at FTC v. Commerce Planet, Inc., 878 F. Supp. 2d 1048, 1068-72 (C.D. Cal. 2012), a fraud case involving the adequacy of buried disclosures that were contradicted by other far more prominent claims.
If we are going to reclaim disclosures, those techniques will have to be reined in by more than enforcement cases by the FTC and state agencies. More important, we must focus on making disclosures comprehensible and addressing the “indifference” problem that Omni and Carl describe. Professor Oren Bar-Gill’s book, Seduction by Contract, argues that more effective disclosures could be designed to enhance consumer welfare. And the FTC’s work on disclosures holds some promise. Look at, for example, the FTC’s work on Dot.Com disclosures available here.
3. Disclosures to ensure accountability. There is a long history of mandatory disclosures in the United States. For instance, even before there was an FDA, Congress mandated that food labels identify the name of the food, the food’s ingredients, the net weight of the food, and the name and address of the manufacturer. The requirement was intended to aid consumers in making purchasing decisions. But more than that, the requirement was intended to give law enforcement agencies a hook to bring enforcement cases in the event that the food was misbranded. When Congress passed the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in 1938, it carried forward these requirements, and they remain in force today.
The same of course is true with the Federal Trade Commission Act’s longstanding prohibition on deceptive acts and practices. Without disclosure regimes, many mandated by law, the FTC’s enforcement authority would be a shell of what it is today, as would be the case for State Unfair and Deceptive Acts and Practices statutes.
My point here isn’t to claim that disclosure regimes should ordinarily be imposed to serve only as accountability mechanisms. How to inject greater accountability into the marketplace is an issue that extends far beyond the scope of Omri and Carl’s wonderful book. Instead, it is to make the more modest claim that even if, as Omri and Carl demonstrate, disclosure regimes generally fail to inform, they often serve the collateral purpose of enabling law enforcement agencies, and at times private parties, to hold sellers accountable for their claims.
* * *
Let me end where I began. The Failure of Mandated Disclosure is a must-read book for anyone who cares about consumer protection, contract law, and an informed marketplace. To me, the book throws down the gauntlet to anyone who is willing to defend the status quo. I doubt that anyone will pick that gauntlet up. But if we agree that the status quo is indefensible, we need to figure how either to live in a post-disclosure world or how to improve disclosures to the point that some of Omri and Carl’s criticisms no longer stick. That is our challenge. I for one am not ready to surrender to a post-disclosure marketplace, especially when we have not yet really focused on designing and enforcing effective disclosure mandates.
Wednesday, September 24, 2014
Ben-Shahar & Schneider Symposium Part XI A: David Vladeck, Living in a Post-Disclosure World, Part A
This is the eleventh in a series of posts that are part of a virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure. Biographies for the second week's contributors can be found here. The authors' introduction to the symposium can be found here.
David C. Vladeck is a Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, where he teaches federal courts, civil procedure, administrative law, and a seminar on First Amendment litigation. Professor Vladeck recently returned to the law school after serving for nearly four years as the Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.
This is the first of a two-part post.
Living in a Post-Disclosure World?: The Challenge of The Failure of Mandated Disclosure
The title of Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl Schneider’s new book, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure, is perfectly apt; the book did tell me far more about the failings in mandated disclosures than I wanted to know. But to be fair, I was warned. The “disclosure” in the title put me on notice that I would learn “more than I wanted to know,” and the authors kept their promise, proving, perhaps in tension with their title, that disclosures sometimes work.
This is a book worth reading. The authors ably stake out and defend their thesis. They carefully, cogently, and at times, ardently make the argument that mandated disclosure regimes are destined to fail. Too many disclosures lead to overload. Too many disclosures are incomprehensible - written in leaden language, laden with disclaimers, and comprehensible only by people with multiple doctorate degrees. But what really dooms disclosures is indifference – a curse for which there is no cure. While improvements around the margins may be possible, the authors contend that engaging in the quixotic effort to fix unfixable mandated disclosure regimes is a fool’s errand. Instead, we should move to better and more effective regulatory regimes in those instances where they are really needed.
Make no mistake; Omri and Carl are not corporatists who want to leverage corporate power over consumers. Their intentions are pure and good. They care deeply about promoting consumer welfare. But, in their view, our current disclosure regime does the opposite: It is a ruse that promises consumer protection but delivers nothing more than an illusion. There is, of course, a great deal of truth in the authors’ critique of mandatory disclosure regimes. Few, if anyone, will defend the status quo. I certainly will not. I share most, if not all, of the criticisms that the authors rightly train on mandatory disclosure regimes. And I wholeheartedly endorse their view that disclosure and more disclosure, as a politically expedient compromise, often prevents needed regulation.
But I do not accept the pessimism that runs through the book. Reading it, I was reminded of the quip about democracy – which “ is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” In some respects, disclosure mandates are the worst form of consumer protection tools. But for some things, disclosures serve important interests. Disclosures cannot simply be abandoned; we need to preserve them where appropriate, we certainly need to figure out how to do them better, and we need to stop using disclosure regimes as a substitute for needed regulation. For this reason, I’ll pick up where the book leaves off; that is, how to reform the process to move to less bad disclosure regimes.
I have three modest points: In today’s post I will argue that there are disclosure regimes that work. We should explore them to see why. In my second post, I will argue that there are tools that can be used to address some of the flaws that Omri and Carl rightly identify and criticize. They must be employed. Finally, my tenure at the FTC taught me that mandatory disclosures are often an effective way to ensure accountability. That virtue is worth exploiting.
1. Success stories: There is no question some mandatory disclosure schemes work. A number of health warnings have succeeded. For instance, no one would seriously challenge the success of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 in substantially reducing life-threatening allergic reactions to foods. Nor would one take issue with the success of poison-prevention programs that rely on Skull and Crossbones warnings. Perhaps the most dramatic success story is the virtual elimination of Reye’s syndrome in children in the United States as a result of mandatory labeling of aspirin-containing products. Reye’s syndrome is a rare and potentially fatal condition affecting children and adolescents. The syndrome attacks the brain and liver, and about half of those afflicted die, with many more suffering severe and irreversible brain damage. By the late 1970s, strong evidence emerged that there was an association between Reye’s syndrome, and children and teenagers taking aspirin-containing products to treat flu like symptoms and chicken pox. I was a lawyer at Public Citizen Litigation Group when we brought suit to compel the FDA in 1986 to amend the labeling of all aspirin-containing products to warn parents of the association. The litigation took a few years, but ultimately succeeded in forcing the FDA to put this warning on aspirin-containing products: “Children and teenagers who have or are recovering from chicken pox or flu-like symptoms should not use this product. When using this product, if changes in behavior with nausea and vomiting occur, consult a doctor because these symptoms could be an early sign of Reye’s syndrome, a rare but serious illness.” The statistics are striking. “In 1977, 454 cases of Reye’s syndrome were reported in the United States. Of the 373 cases with follow-up, 42% of these patients died, and 11% survived with residual neurologic damage. Incidence was increased with viral epidemics, especially influenza B and varicella. Reye’s syndrome cases in the U.S. numbered 555 in 1980, but they have fallen drastically. From 1994 until 1997, identified cases in the U.S. were fewer than two per year.” Lisa Degnan, Reye’s Syndrome: A Rare But Serious Pediatric Condition, U.S. Pharmacist.
To be sure, there are a number of factors that one could argue make these examples aberrational: they involve matters of life and death; they generally involve young children or other vulnerable populations; and with the food allergen legislation and the Reye’s syndrome warning, the risks were conveyed not just by warnings, but by broader publicity and public education. And the industry has become more sensitive to these risks. For instance, most children’s pain relievers no longer contain aspirin (although some do), and some manufacturers have reformulated their products to reduce the use of food dyes, nuts, and other known allergens. All fair points. But the publicity surrounding Reye’s syndrome has disappeared over the past thirty years, as has the buzz surrounding children’s allergies. Yet Reye’s syndrome has been virtually eliminated, and the risk of allergic reactions triggered by food allergens has been driven down.
Why did these disclosure schemes work? I think that there are a number of reasons. First, people are not indifferent to immediate life-threatening health issues, especially for their children. Second, these disclosures were just that - disclosures written in short, highly directive language, geared to people with no more than an elementary school education. Third, the disclosures were not drowned in a sea of disclaimers, which is often the fatal flaw. Fourth, the disclosures were properly labeled – the disclosure did in fact convey important health information. Fifth, the disclosures were provided just in time – just when the consumer is making a purchase, and not in a pile of paper in the box to be viewed at some point after the purchasing decision. And sixth, the disclosures were part of a broader education campaign and were backed up by a strong regulatory scheme.
Tune in tomorrow for Part B.
This is the tenth in a series of posts that are part of a virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure. Biographies for the second week's contributors can be found here. The authors' introduction to the symposium can be found here.
Jeff Sovern is a Professor of Law at St. John’s University in New York City where he teaches Consumer Protection, among other subjects.
Ben-Shahar’s and Schneider’s book convincingly demonstrates that disclosures are rarely effective consumer protections. But there is one type of consumer disclosure where, in my view, at least, the jury is still out, though I think Ben-Shahar and Schneider feel differently. I refer to the single-letter restaurant grade disclosures that some states and municipalities require be posted on restaurant doors. I want to discuss those disclosures in this post, in the hope that they can also be extended to other situations.
Localities have long inspected restaurants for health code violations. In the pre-internet era, the resulting reports were often available for public inspection in government offices, but no doubt few consumers troubled to travel to those offices to read them. When the internet became available, some municipalities posted the reports on the web, and some consumers surely consulted them, but it seems likely that few bothered. As a result, there is no reason to think the inspections had much impact on consumer decisions about which restaurants to patronize. At some point, Los Angeles, later joined by New York City, San Diego, South Carolina, and various other governments, began distilling the grades down to a single letter grade—often an A,B, or a C--and requiring restaurants to display them at their entrances. Theoretically, enabling consumers to see a readily-understandable disclosure at the time they made a decision to enter the restaurant would make it possible for consumers to use the disclosure.
As Ben-Shahr and Schneider note at page 155, initial reports about restaurant grades were quite positive. Hospitalizations for food-borne illnesses in Los Angeles fell by 20% while the later adoption in New York was said to cut salmonella cases by 14%.Apparently, restaurateurs, not wanting to have a bad grade on their front door, improved hygiene. The resulting improvements benefited not only those who heeded the grades—by telling them which restaurants were less clean—but seemingly even those who ignored the grades, because restaurants became cleaner. It seemed like the perfect disclosure, in that it appeared all restaurant patrons were helped by it.
But a later study was less promising. Daniel Ho’s article, Fudging the Nudge: Information Disclosure and Restaurant Grading, 122 Yale L. J. 574 (2012), found, in Ben-Shahar’s and Schneider’s words that “grades have no discernable health benefits, distort the allocation of inspection resources, and mislead diners.” While Ben-Shahar and Schneider don’t say explicitly that single letter grading is a failure, the book left me, at least, with the impression that that was the authors’ view, which of course is in keeping with the rest of the disclosures the book describes. While Ben-Shahar & Schneider quite rightly point out genuine problems with single-letter grading, I believe that it is premature to conclude that it can’t work in some contexts. It would be unfortunate if governments abandoned a form of disclosure that might work merely because many other forms do not.
Ho’s claim that restaurant grades do not affect health is based on his findings that the grades did not have an impact on calls to 311 and Google searches. The assumption is that people suffering stomach issues from eating at unclean restaurants would use Google for relevant searches and that therefore if the grades resulted in fewer stomach ailments, we would see fewer such searches; because the searches didn’t decline, neither did the incidence of illnesses caused by eating at restaurants. Similarly, if people suffered gastrointestinal problems they attributed to eating at unclean restaurants, they could be expected to call 311 and report the restaurant; the absence of a drop in calls about restaurant therefore implies that there was not a drop in stomach problems.
That makes sense, up to a point. But all it gets us to, when the earlier studies are taken into account, is that the evidence for the effectiveness of single-letter disclosure grades is inconsistent. The bigger problem, however, is that while the studies may provide the best evidence we have available at present to evaluate single-letter disclosures, they are flawed as measures of such disclosures. Changes in public health during the relevant periods may be attributable to many things, of which the restaurant grades are only one. Obviously, people who become ill through eating foods prepared at home would not be affected by restaurant grades. But even if we ignore that, another problem is that consumers may find the disclosures useful even if the disclosures do not improve public health.
I teach in New York City, one of the localities using health department grades. For some years, when I take up the topic of disclosure in my consumer law course, I have asked students whether they take the health grade disclosures into account in choosing among restaurants. Usually a minority of students report that they do not. It is fair, I think, to say that those students do not benefit from the grades, unless the grades positively alter restaurateur conduct, which, as noted above, they may. But most students have claimed that they do take the grades into account. And their concern did not seem motivated solely by health concerns, though that was a factor. Another factor was disgust. Some students seem interested in avoiding unclean restaurants wholly apart from health concerns because they are repulsed by eating insect parts, etc.
The students I have polled are too small a sample to shed much light on consumer behavior generally, and as law students who have chosen to take a consumer law class, are hardly a random sample of the population. In addition, perhaps my students exaggerated the extent to which they paid attention to the grades. But I don’t think so. During one of the semesters, the cafeteria in our school received a poor grade, and students reported that they stopped eating there. I doubt they would have invented that claim. And because our building is some distance from the other eateries, the decision to avoid the cafeteria imposed some inconvenience, suggesting that the students in question valued cleanliness and the grades which signaled the lack thereof more than the convenience of eating in the cafeteria.
In short, even if the grades did not affect public health, about which there is some doubt, consumers could still find them valuable by enabling avoidance of behavior—such as eating food shared by rodents—that they see as repulsive. This does not answer the question of whether the grades are worth incurring the costs they impose, but it does indicate that the grades have utility.
To be sure, some existing restaurant grade systems have been flawed in implementation. Professor Ho observed, and Professors Ben-Shahar and Schneider echoed, that in San Diego, grade inflation has resulted in 99.9% of the restaurants receiving an A. In New York, they report, restaurant inspectors grading practices seem not to be consistent. But that does not mean that similar grading systems cannot be implemented well. Perhaps they can’t be, but we don’t have enough data to determine that.
It is easy to imagine other single-letter grading systems that might benefit consumers. For example, now that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a public database for the receipt of complaints about credit card issuers, a system could assign a grade to credit card companies based on the percentage of their customers who had filed a complaint that was not satisfactorily resolved. The grade could be made available to consumers before they applied for a credit card. Would you like to know the grade a company had received before you applied for its credit card? And would such a system increase company incentives to respond to consumer complaints, or even try to forestall them, just as consumers feel pressure to pay even disputed debts to avoid soiling their credit reports?
More than most, law professors should be aware of the possibility that grades boiled down to a single symbol might be effective. Law schools have long bemoaned the impact of the US News rankings on applicants’ decisions where to go. The US News rankings are flawed, but they have an impact. To the extent that it is possible to create grades that are not flawed, they remain a tool in the consumer protection arsenal. Of course, the fact that grades work in one context doesn’t mean they will work in all contexts. Consumers might heed restaurant grades—if they do--because they wish to avoid illness or being disgusted and applicants to law schools might pay attention to the rankings because they perceive decisions as to where to study to be of great importance. Perhaps grades in contexts with less at stake would elicit less attention. And some matters surely cannot be reduced to a single grade, such as determinations about which mortgage offers the best terms. In that scenario, disclosure, whether in a single grade or at greater length, seems unlikely to be successful.
The fact is, we don’t know whether single letter grades work or not. A better test of their effectiveness would be to watch how consumers behave when selecting between two choices which received different grades. The data that we have is an imperfect proxy for that study, and it is far too soon to know whether they work. Ben-Shahar and Schneider are correct in much of what they say about disclosure’s limits. But it would be unfortunate to give up on single-letter grades given the evidence which suggests that they may help consumers.
Tuesday, September 23, 2014
This is the ninth in a series of posts that are part of a virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure. Biographies for the second week's contributors can be found here. The authors' introduction to the symposium can be found here.
Daniel Schwarcz is an Associate Professor of Law and the Solly Robins Distinguished Research Fellow at the University of Minnesota Law School and he comes to us fresh form his star turn on NPR's Planet Money.
Note: This response draws from my article, Transparently Opaque: Understanding the Lack of Transparency in Insurance Consumer Protection, 61 UCLA Law Review 394 (2014)
More Than You Wanted to Know is clearly an important, persuasive, and meticulously researched book. Its core claim is that mandatory disclosure is an oft-used regulatory technique that has repeatedly failed to help individuals make better decisions in complex and unfamiliar settings. More controversially, Ben-Shahar and Schneider argue that this failing of mandatory disclosure is largely insurmountable, because most people (i) have little reason to read disclosed information in the first place, (ii) cannot understand such information even when they want to, and (iii) are unable to translate such information into better decision-making. Although I ultimately believe that Ben-Shahar and Schneider are overly pessimistic about the capacity of modernized disclosures (such as the mortgage disclosure composed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) to improve decision-making, their skepticism on this front is both reasonable and persuasively defended.
Nonetheless, More Than You Wanted to Know suffers from an important limitation, in my view. Until its final few pages, the book almost entirely ignores the possibility that mandatory disclosures may help to achieve regulatory objectives in ways that do not depend on their ability to directly help individuals make better decisions. In fact, most of the book seems to have been written on the assumption that mandatory disclosure can only work if disclosees generally read, understand, and use disclosures. (Ben-Shahar and Schneider explicitly say as much on page 34). But disclosures that make relevant information more readily available to the public – either by requiring the production of new information or by making existing information more easily and cheaply accessible – may deter over-reaching by firms, improve the accuracy of prices, or indirectly facilitate more informed decision-making even if they do not directly improve decision-making among most potential recipients of disclosure.
First, mandatory disclosure can discourage firms from embracing potentially objectionable strategies in the first place, because doing so raises the risk of substantial reputational or regulatory consequences. For instance, Ben-Shahar and Schneider criticize hygiene-grade requirements for restaurants on the basis that they do not empower consumers to choose less risky eating establishments. But this claim is not necessarily inconsistent with evidence suggesting that such grades reduce food-borne illness by inducing food establishments to take more care (though the evidence here is indeed mixed). This is hardly the only instance where Ben-Shahar and Schneider criticize disclosure strategies that can have important benefits by enhancing accountability and deterring misconduct, rather than by helping individuals make better decisions. A non-exclusive list of additional examples includes mandatory disclosure of (i) campus crime, (ii) graduation and placement statistics, and (iii) hospital report cards. Further examples of mandatory disclosures that can deter overreaching or misconduct, but which Ben-Shahar and Schneider do not extensively discuss, include mandatory disclosure in the contexts of (i) environmental regulation, (ii) campaign finance law, and (iii) mortgage discrimination.
Second, mandatory disclosure that increases the public accessibility of relevant information can improve the accuracy of prices. This, of course, is the primary rationale for mandatory disclosure in securities markets. Thus, when Ben-Shahar and Schneider criticize mandatory disclosure in securities regulation because most investors don’t read prospectuses, they miss their mark. As above, mandatory disclosure in securities regulation is important even though most investors do not read or understand prospectuses because information contained therein impacts the price of securities due to trading by market arbitragers. Although the link between mandatory disclosure and price accuracy is best illustrated in the context of securities regulation, other examples abound. For instance, mandates requiring home-sellers to disclose relevant information in response to standardized forms may help ensure that the price of a property more accurately reflects its market value.
Third, mandatory disclosure can improve individual decision-making indirectly, by empowering consultants, information intermediaries, and computer programs to provide tailored advice to individuals. Thus, the true promise of “smart disclosure” is not that computer programs will provide relevant disclosures to specific consumers (which is how Ben-Shahar and Schneider describe it), but that they will provide precisely the type of personalized advice that Ben-Shahar and Schneider acknowledge to be so useful. Mandatory disclosure can play an especially vital role in facilitating smart disclosure by making standardized, computer-readable data publicly available to potential developers of these tools. This can dramatically decrease costs for those who might develop smart disclosure tools – such as entrepreneurs and public interest groups – and thus enhance competition and market entry in this domain.
In contrast to their meticulous and empirically-grounded (though perhaps unduly pessimistic) criticisms of disclosures’ capacity to directly improve individual decision-making, Ben-Shahar and Schneider’s responses to the above points are unconvincing and under-developed (as reflected by the fact that they only emerge in the book’s final ten pages). Their primary retort is that mandatory disclosure is not needed to make information more broadly available to the public, because those who would make use of such information can acquire it without the need for government mandates. But this largely misses the point, which is that mandatory disclosure can make relevant information more easily and cheaply available to market intermediaries, academics, journalists, lawmakers, public interest groups, and developers of “smart disclosure” tools. This, in turn, can enhance the capacity of these actors to police against market misconduct, improve market efficiency, and/or provide more informed personalized advice. To be sure, the magnitude of these effects is an empirical question that is context-dependent. But there are good reasons to believe that Ben-Shahar and Schneider’s pessimism in this domain is excessive. In any event, in contrast to most of the book’s claims, this pessimism is surely not empirically grounded, as illustrated by the absence of any supporting citations for the arguments they develop on this front in the book’s final chapter.
Ben-Shahar and Schneider also suggest at several points that there is a tension between using mandatory disclosure to enhance the public availability of information and using it to directly improve individuals’ decision-making. Not so. Mandatory disclosures that are principally aimed at enhancing accountability, empowering market intermediaries, or improving market efficiency can and should be distinct from mandatory disclosures that are meant to repackage and summarize information so as to improve decision-making. This point is illustrated by the coexistence of full and summary securities prospectuses, or by the coexistence of summary disclosures of credit card terms and a public database containing the complete contracts of all credit card providers.
Ultimately, the capacity of mandatory disclosures to increase accountability, improve market efficiency, or indirectly enhance the accuracy of personalized advice is substantially dependent on context. So too, in my view, is the capacity of mandatory disclosure to improve decision-making. For instance, my reading of the evidence on nutritional labels is that they can indeed substantially improve consumer decision-making, even if this occurs less often or consistently than would be ideal. For these reasons, I believe that Ben-Shahar and Schneider go too far in condemning mandatory disclosure as a regulatory tool in virtually all settings. Nonetheless, the evidence they canvass and the arguments they develop provide valuable insight both as to the limits of mandatory disclosure and to the difficulties involved in designing and implementing them effectively.
Ben-Shahar & Schneider Symposium, Part VIII: Florencia Marotta-Wurgler, Even More Thank You Wanted To Know
This is the eighth in a series of posts that are part of a virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure. Biographies for the second week's contributors can be found here. The authors' introduction to the symposium can be found here.
Florencia Marotta-Wurgler is a professor of law at New York University School of Law.
This review of Professors Ben-Shahar and Schneider More Than You Wanted to Know, is based on my earlier review, titled “Even More Thank You Wanted To Know About the Failures of Mandated Disclosure, which is forthcoming in the Jerusalem Review of Legal Studies.
The book offers an important and compelling critique of the many forms of disclosure regulation and explain why the problems cannot be fixed. According to the authors, successful disclosure regulation depends on the simultaneous success of too many factors. Disclosers must reveal the right type of information, in the right format, and at the right time; and, of course, individuals must read, understand, and use this information in a way that enables them to make the right decision. The authors claim that this just doesn’t happen. Somewhere along the line, the process breaks down. For example, evidence shows that individuals don’t read fine print and, even if they wanted to, they wouldn’t be able to read it because disclosures are usually long, complex, and hard to understand.
Instead of reading disclosures and making choices, the authors argue, what consumers really want is advice—in the form of ratings, rankings, scores, and the like. They observe that current opinion services, such as TripAdvisor and the reviews in Amazon.com, don’t need disclosure regulation because they function properly on their own. (The authors note that consultants do this, too, but that they are unreliable.) They conclude by urging regulators to quit insisting on the failed recipe of mandatory disclosure and resist the urge to replace it with something else. This will leave much-needed room for alternative mechanisms to emerge that can more effectively address specific problems associated with imperfect information.
While I certainly agree with the main premise that disclosure regulation in its current form is of almost no value (see here and here), I must push back on the claim that information intermediaries function properly on their own to supply the right type of information that consumers want. [In the full review, I also offer new evidence in support of the authors’ claim that disclosures tend to get worse over time using an analysis of a sample of consumer standard form contracts that reveals changes in contract and disclosure practices from 2003 until 2010. While sellers broadly increased the disclosure of their contracts over these years, offsetting this improvement is a significant increase in the length of contracts, an increase in bias against consumers, and no improvement in readability. Indeed, contracts that became more accessible have a particular tendency to grow longer and more one-sided.]
On Ratings, Rankings, and Information Intermediaries.
After enumerating all the problems with disclosure regulation. Ben-Shahar and Schneider posit that information intermediaries are able to supply the type of information that consumers want and need (“ratings, rankings, scores, grades, labels, and reviews”) without the need for mandatory disclosure. While this last point might be debatable—especially when it comes to “use pattern” disclosures—relying on advice, ratings and rankings to inform individuals about fine print suffers from a number of the same maladies the authors identify with mandatory disclosure. In particular, they assume that people will care enough to actively seek them out, understand them and use them wisely; that they will convey the right type of information, and that they will be produced well and not suffer from some of the problems and conflicts that trouble disclosure regulation.
Evidence suggests, like in disclosure regimes, that these conditions are rarely met. Take “user generated” rankings and reviews, such as Amazon.com (products), Expedia (hotels), and Yelp (merchants), which the authors use examples of well-functioning information intermediaries. An encouraging fact is that positive ratings affect sales, suggesting that consumers rely on them in making decisions about which goods or services to buy. This is a clear improvement over mandatory disclosure and enough to pursue further consideration. The problem, though, is that user-generated reviews can by systematically biased, noisy, and thus not very reliable. For example, there is evidence that reviews tend to become increasingly negative as ratings environments mature. Two experiments also show that reviewers tend to adjust their evaluations based on reviews previously written by others. There is the problem of shill reviews. These behaviors introduce noise and bias and offer no panacea or an obvious improvement in consumer decision-making—the end objective here—over mandatory disclosure. Moreover, many reviews and rankings are used for one-dimensional decisions, such as whether to eat a particular restaurant or read a particular book, and might not convey much information about the quality or terms of the fine print.
On the other hand, expert-generated reports, like those in Consumer Reports, can get around some of the problems of user-generated reviews. Experts test and experience the good or service and pertinent standard form contract terms, and may also report some contract features (such as warranties) for big-ticket items. Specialized intermediaries, such as PrivacyChoice, The Fine Print Project, and FairContracts.org offer summarized reviews of the content of disclosures. Indeed, there are sites and blogs that seek to simplify fine print disclosures to consumers, including the terms in online privacy policies. Individuals who seek the opinion of experts might fare better in becoming informed about the nature of the goods and services they consider, including the fine print. Of course, these general evaluations would not help individuals in selecting products and services whose desirability depends on individual use patterns.
Unfortunately, even when (good) opinions data on fine print exist, there are still weak links in the chain of circumstances required for accurate consumer decision-making articulated by Ben-Shahar and Schneider. In particular, just as individuals fail to read fine print when it is disclosed, they do not seek out such specialized information intermediaries. In a study on consumer shopping for software online, for instance, only 0.1% of consumers accessed a software product review while shopping for software (which is essentially the same rate at which shoppers read disclosed end-user license agreements). Also, in a sample of over 48,000 shopping visits, not a single shopper visited any of the specialized sites that discuss contract terms, including EULAs and other fine print. The fact that millions of people access Amazon.com and TripAdvisor daily is not a defense here; this discussion concerns the likelihood that consumers will seek out advice on fine print, not the overall product itself.
This is not surprising. As the authors suggest in their book, this behavior might be perfectly rational. It might also be perfectly rational for reviewers to ignore the fine print. After all, it seems unlikely than an arbitration clause, or a restriction on reverse engineering, will affect an individual’s purchase decision. Whether and what to do about the terms that are ignored but which might affect substantive rights of individuals later is an important question that needs to be addressed, especially given the current challenges to class action litigation. What seems clear is that, just as disclosure, opinion ratings, while superior in some respects, might not offer a fully satisfying solution to this problem. Or at least not yet.
Overall, the book offers a comprehensive and compelling indictment against mandatory disclosure, the most popular regulatory technique in consumer protection. It is a terrific read and a much-needed contribution to existing debates on consumer protection. While there is no perfect solution to the problems of fine print, Ben-Shahar and Schneider offer new and thought-provoking ideas to move the debate forward.
Monday, September 22, 2014
This is the seventh in a series of posts that are part of a virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure. Biographies for the second week's contributors can be found here. The authors' introduction to the symposium can be found here.
Nancy Kim is the ProFlowers Distinguished Professor of Internet Studies and Professor of Law at the California Western School of Law and also a Visiting Professor at the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego.
Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider ‘s book, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure (Princeton, 2014), canvasses a wide variety of disclosures and concludes that as a policy, mandated disclosure is a spectacular failure. Businesses spend resources drafting disclosures that consumers fail to read. Furthermore, these ubiquitous disclosures may end up harming consumers by providing a protective shield around businesses. Ben-Shahar and Schneider explain why consumers fail to read, why politicians prefer it as a regulatory scheme, and why they believe that efforts to fix disclosure are destined to fail.
While I agree with much of what the authors say about disclosure, I disagree that disclosure in an abject failure in all cases or that disclosure as a regulatory policy is destined to fail. What they call “disclosure” includes all types of information – contracts, prescription labels, credit card statements, food labels - in different type of situations conveyed in different ways. They sweep too much under the umbrella of “mandated disclosure,” and so paint a picture of a failed regulatory approach with too broad a brush. In some cases, consumer have benefitted from streamlined presentation, plain English and limited information. Studies indicate that there are ways to get consumers to read disclosures, such as by making notices shorter, changing the presentation of terms, and allowing them to alter or select terms. The authors acknowledge that in some cases disclosures has proven effective but don’t delve into details. Rather than exploring how to make disclosure more effective, the authors say disclosure cannot be made effective.
Ben-Shahar and Schneider argue that mandated disclosure is a “failure,” and as proof of that, they offer examples of the failure of consumers to read and understand disclosure. Putting aside for a moment the issue of whether disclosures could be presented in a more noticeable and understandable way, I’m skeptical that the failure of consumer reading is the best way to measure the efficacy of mandated disclosure. The obligation to disclose, the burdensome task of determining what information should be disclosed and the drafting and disseminating of that information, likely have benefits apart from whether consumers read the terms. The requirement of disclosure may deter or restrain companies from acting in socially harmful ways. It may also force companies to reconsider the way they do business. Government mandated disclosures concerning the processing of foods and food ingredients have resulted in businesses eliminating certain practices (e.g. caging chickens) or ingredients (e.g. hydrogenated fats). Thus, the process of disclosing may itself have positive regulatory effects on the business not because the consumer has policed the terms, but because the fear of disclosing has forced the company to self-regulate. True, disclosure may not always work, but it’s unhelpful to make such broad generalizations about mandated disclosure’s efficacy without honing in on a particular industry or type of discloser. Some disclosure works in some cases and more research should be conducted on how to make certain disclosures more effective. Lengthy technical jargon and legalese typically fails, but visual imagery, text boxes and concise language may work at least for some products and services. There is a difference between a disclosure that provides consumers with information on a medical procedure and one that seeks to bind a customer to contractual obligations. [In an example of an effective mandated disclosure, I refrained from purchasing this nice baking tin when I saw this notice at right:
The authors provide many useful examples of failed disclosure mandates but they provide no alternatives. They argue that mandated disclosure “accomplishes so little that eliminating it would deny few people anything.” In essence, what they mean when they argue that mandated disclosure should be abolished is that the burdens that mandated disclosure places upon businesses and other disclosing entities (such as doctors) should be borne instead by legislators, regulators, the judiciary and consumers themselves.
The problem with this approach is that businesses are typically in the best position to know what information needs to be disclosed and often in the best position to bear the costs of disclosure. Consumers may be able to get information about a product or service through online reviews, for example, but that puts the burden on consumers to sift through the reviews and assess their veracity.
Ben-Shahar and Schneider are unconcerned about the societal ramifications of doing away with mandated disclosure, but there could be serious consequences for both businesses and consumers. The problems of adequate disclosure (what, how much, when) that Ben-Shahar and Schneider delve into in great detail don’t go away because disclosure is not mandated. For example, let’s assume that there is a miniscule chance of a serious side effect from taking a prescribed drug. The drug has great benefits except in rare instances. If the doctor prescribes the drug to the patient without disclosing the potential for this side effect, and the patient suffers greatly, what would happen? Neither the physician nor the company has violated a mandated disclosure requirement but that doesn’t mean they won’t be held liable for injuries to this patient resulting from the drug. If the patient sues, the doctor and/or the drug company are subject to the ex-post analysis of a jury comprised of consumers. The focus then is on the suffering of the sympathetic plaintiff and who should bear the costs of the suffering, and not the adequacy of the disclosure. Is this a better net result for society than the current system of disclosure? Or do the authors intend that “no mandated disclosure” should mean no cause of action and no remedy for the injured plaintiff? To put it bluntly, is a “no-mandated disclosure” regime a free pass for businesses? Or is it a green light for class action attorneys? Neither sounds appealing.
More Than You Wanted to Know is a powerful argument against mandated disclosures. Ben-Shahar and Schneider exhaustively and effectively chronicle the problems and significant costs of mandated disclosure. The costs of getting rid of mandated disclosure, however, may be even greater.
This week we will continue our virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure.
Last week we had six contributions:
This week, the symposium will include contributions by the contracts law scholars introduced below:
Nancy Kim is the ProFlowers Distinguished Professor of Internet Studies and Professor of Law at the California Western School of Law and also a Visiting Professor at the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego. Prior to joining the faculty at California Western in 2004, Professor Kim was Vice President of Business and Legal Affairs of a multinational software and services company. She has worked in business and legal capacities for several Bay Area technology companies and was an associate in the corporate law departments at Heller, Ehrman, White & McAuliffe in San Francisco and Gunderson, Dettmer in Menlo Park.
Professor Kim currently serves as Chair of the section on Contracts and as a member of the executive committee of the section on Commercial and Related Consumer Law of the American Association of Law Schools. She is a contributing editor to the ContractsProf Blog, the official blog for the AALS Section on Contracts. Her scholarly interests focus on culture and the law, contracts, women and the law, and technology. She is the author of WRAP CONTRACTS: FOUNDATIONS AND RAMIFICATIONS (Oxford University Press, 2013) which examines how contracts control consumer behavior, especially online, and what this means for society. Professor Kim is an elected member of the American Law Institute.
Some of her scholarly papers can be found on SSRN here.
Florencia Marotta-Wurgler is a professor of law at New York University School of Law. Her teaching and research interests are contracts, consumer privacy, electronic commerce, and law and economics. Her published research has addressed various problems associated with standard form contract online, such as the effectiveness of disclosure regimes, delayed presentation of terms, and whether people read the fine print. Her current projects focus on empirical analyses on consumer privacy policies online. Professor Marotta-Wurgler has testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation and is an associate reporter of the American Law Institute's Third Restatement of the Law of Consumer Contracts.
Some of her scholarly papers can be found here.
Daniel Schwarcz is an Associate Professor of Law and the Solly Robins Distinguished Research Fellow at the University of Minnesota Law School. Professor Schwarcz's research primarily focuses on consumer protection and regulation in property/casualty and health insurance markets. His articles have been published, or accepted for publication, in the University of Chicago Law Review, Virginia Law Review, Minnesota Law Review, North Carolina Law Review, William and Mary Law Review, and Tulane Law Review. Additionally, he is the editor of a book entitled, The Law and Economics of Insurance and recently joined the casebook, Abraham's Insurance Law and Regulation, which has been used as the principal text in courses on insurance law in more than 100 American law schools. In 2011, his article, "Reevaluating Standardized Insurance Policies," received the Liberty Mutual Prize for an exceptional article on insurance law and regulation.
Professor Schwarcz teaches insurance law, health care regulation and finance, contract law, and commercial law. He was named the Stanley V. Kinyon Overall Teacher of the Year for 2011-2012 and the Stanley V. Kinyon Tenure-Track Teacher of the Year for 2007-2008. Additionally, he serves as a Funded Consumer Representative to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners and has served as an expert witness in multiple insurance-related disputes.
Links to Professor Schwarcz's academic papers can be found on SSRN here.
Jeff Sovern is a Professor of Law at St. John’s University in New York City where he teaches Consumer Protection, among other subjects. The New York Times has called him "an expert in consumer law," a statement echoed by the Chicago Tribune, and Mother Jones. He is a co-coordinator of the Consumer Law and Policy Blog, and the co-editor of the Consumer Law Abstracts Journal for the Social Science Research Network. He co-authored a casebook titled Consumer Law: Cases and Materials (4d ed. 2013 West) with Professors John A. Spanogle, Ralph J. Rohner, Dee Pridgen, and Christopher Peterson, with whom he also co-edited Selected Consumer Statutes(2007, 2009, 2011, and 2013 editions). He has published numerous op-eds, including in The New York Times (here and here). He has authored many law review articles on consumer law issues, one of which was listed in Martha Minow’s Archetypal Legal Scholarship: A Field Guide, 63 J. Legal Education 65 (2013) as an example of archetypal policy analysis. The American Council on Consumer Interests awarded Professor Sovern the Russell A. Dixon Prize in 2002 and the 2010 Applied Consumer Economics Award. Sovern has also spoken at many conferences. His full bio can be found here.
David C. Vladeck is a Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, where he teaches federal courts, civil procedure, administrative law, and a seminar on First Amendment litigation. Professor Vladeck recently returned to the law school after serving for nearly four years as the Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. At the FTC, he supervised the Bureau’s more than 430 lawyers, investigators, paralegals and support staff in carrying out the Bureau’s work to protect consumers from unfair, deceptive or fraudulent practices. Before joining the law school faculty full-time in 2002, Professor Vladeck spent over 25 years with Public Citizen Litigation Group, a nationally-prominent public interest law firm, handling and supervising a complex litigation. He has briefed and argued a number of cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and more than sixty cases before federal courts of appeal and state courts of last resort. He is a Senior Fellow of the Administrative Conference of the United States, and an elected member of the American Law Institute. He also serves on the boards of the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Consumers Law Center. Professor Vladeck frequently testifies before Congress and writes on administrative law, preemption, First Amendment, and access to justice issues.
A list of Professor Vladeck's publications can be found here.
At the end of the week, our authors will return to respond to their critics, and there may be some surprise appearances by others as well, so stay tuned!
Thursday, September 18, 2014
This is the sixth in a series of posts that are part of a virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure. Biographies for the first week's contributors can be found here. The authors' introduction to the symposium can be found here.
Lauren Willis is Professor of Law at the Loyola Law School, Los Angeles.
More than You Wanted to Know: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
The Good: Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl Schneider’s critique of the ability of mandated disclosure to directly equip consumers to make good complex choices in today’s marketplace is excellent. Consumers usually do not read, or if they read they usually do not understand, or if they understand they usually fail to use or even misuse mandated disclosures.
Moreover, many disclosures do affirmative harm. As I have explained elsewhere, disclosures are a sword with which disclosers disarm consumers into believing that the law protects them more than it does and a shield with which disclosers deflect consumer complaints when the transaction causes harm. Disclosures almost certainly impose regulatory opportunity costs, giving policymakers and consumer advocates illusory gains to point to when they go back to their constituencies. The costs of mandated disclosures are in many instances high, and those costs must be confronted.
While the explanations and arguments in the book are not novel, they are made more accessible to non-academic audiences than prior treatments and are put together in such a way that the sum is greater than its parts. Several passages in the book brilliantly capture points others have made, but not nearly so well. For example, at 74:
Few things make you feel less autonomous than studying a choice that hourly becomes more convoluted and confusing. You feel even less autonomous on realizing that you may never understand. And less autonomous still when you realize that the choice is essentially illusory. The kind of control over life’s choices that disclosurism seems to promise is an illusion.
The authors’ use of the choice between a treatment with a low chance of success but a low risk of death and a treatment with a high chance of success and a high risk of death to illuminate tradeoff difficulty (at 109) is very effective. Their explanation of the problem with anecdotal evidence – “[t]rouble stories, then, may tell us something about the numerator but not the denominator” (at 142) – is ingenious. And their photo of the 32-foot iTunes “scroll” perfectly captures the absurdity of this disclosure for a 99- cent transaction.
The book favorably and copiously cites my work, so perhaps I ought not criticize, but a review would be dull without The Bad:
As perhaps inevitable in a book hoping for popular consumption, the authors overstate their case, branding all mandated disclosure as useless or harmful. But disclosure is neither a panacea nor a poison.
Disclosures intended not to help consumers make complex decisions but to nudge their behavior in a particular direction can work. “Contains peanuts” is a disclosure that likely saves lives. The relevant consumers are highly motivated, sellers have no reason to hide the disclosure, and the information is provided at a point in time and in a manner that makes it easy to use for most consumers. Graphic disclosures have been effective in reducing smoking abroad. A picture of a wilted cigarette next to the word “impotent” appears to be a sufficient turn-off. Unit pricing disclosures at grocery stores facilitates comparative price shopping. More people can and will shop for the cheapest peas when someone else has done the math, likely increasing price competition to the benefit of all who shop at that store. “Smart” disclosure of energy consumption reduces energy use substantially. When people can see in real time that their electricity use is spiking, they can identify which appliances are energy hogs and many scale back use.
Disclosure can also work in more circuitous ways. Some, such as securities disclosures, work through sophisticated third party intermediaries. Others may work because they facilitate competition. Prior to mandated disclosure, firms had no way to credibly compete on trans fat content. But after the mandate, firms were able to advertise “no trans fat” on the front of packages to garner market share, even if most consumers did not read the mandated Nutrition Facts label on package backs.
The trans fat disclosure story may hold another lesson as well. It may have provided a bridge to a ban on trans fat that would have been politically impossible without consumer awareness of the issue, driven by the marketing enabled by the mandated disclosure. In addition, the disclosure regime gave firms an incentive to adapt over time, time firms used to reconstitute products without trans fat and even to develop new seed crops that produce oils that replace trans fat. The imminent national ban on trans fat is thus much less painful for firms and consumers than it would have been without a period of mandated disclosure.
Of course, in each of these examples disclosures faced conditions conducive to efficacy. Cigarettes cause not only long-term health problems that people ignore, but also short-term impotence that grabs attention. The market for peas is structured so that a minority of consumers can likely create price competition, at least within pea product classes (organic peas, petite peas, organic petite peas). Securities transactions are lucrative enough to support third party intermediaries. Enough social awareness of diet and fat existed for consumers to take notice of “no transfat” marketing. But all this is the point: under some conditions disclosure improves welfare and the trick is to limit its use to those conditions, whether previously existing or created by regulation.
In the introduction, the authors assert that disclosure is a “fundamental failure” (at 12) because it “fails to achieve its ambitious goals” (at 6). But policymakers’ grand expectations cannot be the right metric. The authors then assert that “the relevant issue is whether this kind of regulation does more good than harm” (at 13, emphasis added). Social welfare is the right metric, but the costs and benefits of disclosure cannot be assessed devoid of context. “This kind of regulation” may often fail, for all the reasons the authors claim and more, but without a careful examination of the effects of any particular disclosure, the authors cannot conclude that any particular disclosure is a failure.
Recent research on the CARD Act brings this point home. The Act requires issuers to include in accountholders’ monthly statements a chart that states (a) the amount of interest they will save if they pay down their existing debt in 3 years rather than making only the minimum payment and (b) the amount they need to pay monthly so as to retire their debt in 3 years. This disclosure appears to cause more accountholders to increase than to decrease their monthly payments, and thus leads consumers to pay less interest than they would otherwise have paid. The benefits of the disclosure are not dramatic (affecting, at most. .5% of accountholders and saving, on average, only $24 per accountholder affected). But the costs of adding the disclosure to the monthly statement, even if it does crowd out other information, are likely to be even smaller. Whether the disclosure crowds out better regulation is a more difficult to question to answer, one that depends on identifying policies that would entail fewer costs and/or produce more of the benefit policymakers seek. As Ben-Shahar and Schneider recognize, identifying such alternative policies is a task beyond the scope of this book.
And what about The Ugly? There is none. The book is a delightful read, as anyone who knows the wit and charm of the authors will not be surprised to hear. It should be required reading for policymakers and for consumer and patient advocates who, through comfortable familiarity in addition to the political and practical pressures the authors describe as the driving forces behind the use of disclosure, have become overly enamored of the tool. The book is chock full of wonderfully accessible yet nuanced examples and spot-on accounts of human thinking and feeling. Sometimes the authors over-generalize their privileged male perspective (contrary to their assertion, not all academics think they are more productive than their colleagues; female and minority professors of both genders notoriously underestimate their contributions). But the writing is honest to the authors’ own experience throughout, overcoming another fantasy of the privileged – that because we can understand and use (or think we can understand and use) the disclosures we encounter, the disclosures are, or have the potential to be, efficacious for the population as a whole. Kudos, gentlemen, kudos.
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
This is the fifth in a series of posts that are part of a virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure. Biographies for the first week's contributors can be found here. The authors' introduction to the symposium can be found here.
Ethan Leib is Professor of Law at Fordham Law School. He teaches in contracts, legislation, and regulation. His most recent book, Friend v. Friend: Friendships and What, If Anything, the Law Should Do About Them (Oxford University Press), explores the costs and benefits of the legal recognition of and sensitivity to friendship.
Is Omri Ben-Shahar a Duncan Kennedy in Disguise?
I couldn’t help but feel that the thrust of the argument against mandated disclosure for consumers in Omri Ben-Shahar & Carl Schneider’s More Than You Wanted To Know was one I have come to associate with Duncan Kennedy’s argument against unconscionability doctrine in contract law: it is liberal apologism, a convenient “solution” that large corporations and their political shills can tolerate and accommodate – and one that distracts attention from real regulatory solutions that could actually help those we are feeding with a tool they almost surely can’t use well. As with the crumb of unconscionability doctrine (and its meager remedies) which may divert regulators from more full-throated efforts to curb exploitation in consumer form contracts, mandating disclosure similarly seems like it might enable regulators to feel they are getting something done, all while failing to realize just how little piles of aggregated disclosures do for the average consumer or patient. By removing from the menu an option (unconscionability or mandatory disclosure) that provides false comfort about our clean capitalist markets being one of nondomination and full information, we might have a chance at increasing the friction and conflict in our markets, which could lead to a regulatory revolution, solving the things that truly ail us in capitalist life. This final step in the argument is what Kennedy took to outdo Arthur Leff’s basic criticisms of unconsionability.
It may seem odd putting Ben-Shahar from Team L&E side-by-side with Kennedy from Team CLS. But the morphological similarities of their arguments actually also help distill part of what doesn’t fully work about the argument: allowing the perfect to be an enemy of the good. Abandoning the strategy of mandated disclosure may be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. And if the political system is biased in favor of a certain class of disclosers and consumers that actually can make sense of the disclosures (one of Ben-Shahar & Schneider’s nice observations is that disclosure tends to have distributional consequences even among the class of consumers, favoring the rich and well-educated), it is hard to imagine that removing disclosure as a regulatory option will really open the pathway to stick it to the haves.
It is no doubt true – and one would be especially convinced after reading Ben-Shahar & Schneider’s well-executed book – that we have way too much mandated disclosure in our lives that disclosers, consumers, and politicians use badly. But despite overwhelming evidence that disclosure does badly in lots of contexts, using lots of different metrics (consumer knowledge, retention of information, consumer protection, actual terms), it would seem useful to highlight one success story that could help be a benchmark for when disclosure is, after all, a useful response to a regulatory problem and can be done well. The book spends most of its pages debunking failed strategies – but still leaves open the possibility that disclosure could really be different and productive in some areas. One is left to wonder what might count for Ben-Shahar & Schneider as a success story. We know for them it has to give the consumer information they can use to help structure her decision-making.
My favorite example of a “disclosure” – though it is not properly in the mandatory category – that really seems to give the consumer very useful information about the limitations of the product she is buying (facilitating informed decision-making) is the relatively new practice among a series of travel websites to offer (often opt-out) travel insurance at check-out when a consumer purchases a nonrefundable fare. This gives customers what Ryan Calo might call “visceral notice” that their fares will not be easily transferable or changeable – and that they will need to purchase insurance to get some of the benefits that airline tickets used to provide as a matter of course. This is an effective way to let customers know about a new limitation to air travel; even when they don’t buy the insurance, they “get” that insurance is necessary for certain flexibility that was once included in the price of air travel. By being presented with that (often opt-out) choice at checkout, customers’ reasonable expectations are reset. The customer knows what she is getting. More “visceral notice” of this form could be a productive future for mandated disclosure.
Yet even with one or two success stories Ben-Shahar & Schneider still have an important point to make: disclosures – even good ones – add up and inure the customer or patient to the whole lot of them. (Apologies to the authors, but I just can’t use the preferred neologisms in the book: disclosee, disclosurite, disclosurism.) Someone has to be curbing the proliferation or it is all static, the harder it is to hit the viscera.
But Ben-Shahar & Schneider do a little overselling of the “accumulation problem,” I think. To be sure, if mandatory disclosures come at us from state, judicial, federal, and administrative law, it is hard to imagine that we can pare down disclosures just to the effective ones without overwhelming the customer or the patient. But some focus in the world of mandated disclosure surely could be made at least within the federal system through the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which centralizes regulatory review in the Executive Branch. Indeed, notwithstanding the beating Professor Cass Sunstein takes in some sections of the book, former Administrator Cass Sunstein issued several memoranda that sought to put the OIRA in a role that promoted smart disclosure and carefully weighing the costs and benefits of different forms of disclosure. These are ultimately the real desiderata Ben-Shahar & Schneider support when they are not being purposefully provocative: weigh the costs and benefits of even smart disclosure. Although I have recently been critical of the process Administrator Sunstein used to develop his “quasi-regulations” on smart disclosure and simplification in a forthcoming paper with Nestor Davidson (Regleprudence – at OIRA and Beyond, 103 Geo. L.J. (forthcoming 2015)), there is little doubt that Ben-Shahar & Schneider could be selling their ideas to the new Administrator at OIRA who might be able to make real headway on the “accumulation problem,” subjecting many administratively designed disclosure regimes to the crucible of cost-benefit analysis.
Ultimately, I understand why the authors’ years of study have soured them on mandated disclosure. Their story is a dispiriting one: there are political economy problems, accumulation problems, cognitive bias problems, and innumeracy and illiteracy problems that all conspire to leave a reasonable person pessimistic about the future of mandated disclosure. But there is no revolution here in the offing. Best to focus on pointy-headed efforts at OIRA and clever visceral disclosures that get us in the gut.