Wednesday, September 17, 2014
This is the fourth 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.
Robert Hillman is the Edwin H. Woodruff Professor of Law at Cornell University.
Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider have written an important book. In the first two parts of their book, they usefully gather and describe the myriad shortcomings of what they call "mandated disclosure" as a regulatory tool and helpfully explain why disclosure very often fails. Following up on this analysis, in Part III Omri and Carl argue that mandated disclosure cannot be saved and "lawmakers should stop using it." (13) The book certainly should give lawmakers pause before adopting new disclosure strategies.
Omri and I have had many discussions on the merits or lack thereof of disclosure and we always agree to disagree. Still, always interested in a robust exchange of ideas, Omri kindly suggested me as one of the reviewers of the book for this blog. So it should be no surprise that what follows are some counterarguments that respond to assertions made in the book. I have already published my views of the importance of disclosure distinct from the question of whether anybody reads or understands disclosures, including for efficiency, autonomy, corrective justice, and moral reasons. See Robert A. Hillman and Maureen O'Rourke, Defending Disclosure in Software Licensing, 78 U. Chi. L. Rev. 95 (2011). So I will not duplicate those arguments here.
By way of introduction, although I agree with the authors that disclosure is far from a panacea for the various problems it is designed to treat, I fear that these two prominent scholars, perhaps in their zeal to make their case, have lost sight of the usefulness of disclosure in at least some circumstances and as at least one component of regulation to even the playing field between what they call disclosers and disclosees. Perhaps more worrisome, in my view, they engage in serious overkill in their discussion of the so-called harms of disclosure. In addition, although they leave little room for the use of disclosure--"[M]andated disclosure is so indiscriminately used with such unrealistic expectations and such unhappy results that it should be presumptively barred." (183)-- they are quite thin on how to rebut the presumption and what they propose as alternatives. But before lawmakers largely abandon disclosure as a strategy, one would think they need to contemplate what will replace it.
I also worry that Omri and Carl's efforts to go for the jugular on disclosure causes them to lump all disclosures, whether disclosure of contract terms, medical releases, Miranda rights, food labels, campus crime reports, etc. etc., as falling into the same unproductive trap. A more nuanced approach might have led the authors to see the wisdom of at least some disclosure strategies. For example, are they really advocating that vendors of software should not be required to disclose the terms of their licenses to licensees? "Sorry, Ms. Consumer, even though your software doesn't work one of our terms that we didn't have to show you is that you were licensing our software as is." (On page 118 the reader finds a nod to the possibility that some disclosures might work: "We have never argued * * * that all disclosures fail." But this admonition is buried in a landslide of condemnation contained in the book.)
In my limited space, I want to focus on Chapter 11's treatment of the harms of disclosure. I should reveal (after all, this is a piece about disclosure) that Omri and Carl open this chapter with a quote from Maureen O'Rourke and me to represent the folly of what they call "disclosurites". We argued that disclosure is one necessary tool for regulating software contracts and wrote that "disclosure is * * *inexpensive and, at worst, harmless." Hillman and O'Rourke, Defending Disclosure, supra. (Maureen and I, as Reporters for the American Law Institute's "Principles of the Law of Software Contracts," heard repeatedly from software vendors and tech people that disclosing end user licensing agreements on the Internet would be relatively costless.) Omri and Carl use our quotation as a taking off point for the proposition that disclosure causes lots of harm. I will also comment on Chapter 12's discussion of alternatives to disclosure.
Chapter 11: "At Worst, Harmless"
In what follows, I will comment on many of the "harms" of disclosure Omri and Carl present. My goal is to present a more balanced view on whether disclosure is harmful, not to convince the reader one way or the other on the merits of disclosure in these settings. Many of the issues demand a thorough empirical investigation before one can reach any conclusion.
"[W]e all spend uncounted hours dealing with disclosures, sometimes even reading them. * * * [A]ggregated, 'costless' is not the word that comes to mind." (170) But one of the authors' principal complaints about disclosure in many settings is that no one reads the boilerplate. So it is hard to see how licensees are spending "uncounted hours dealing" with disclosures. Omri and Carl devote several pages to a "Parable of Chris Consumer" (95-100) to point out the accumulation of disclosures people confront. But to illustrate the harm wrought by the quantity of disclosures, they portray that Chris is reading them, which they acknowledge is "the reductio ad absurdum of the accumulation problem." (101)
"Disclosure also undercuts against unconscionable contracts * * *. [H]ow can you claim surprise if you got a PROMINENT DISCLOSURE in ALLCAPS and initialed it." (172) The authors here invoke a warning I presented in my article, "Online Boilerplate: Would Mandatory Disclosure of E-Terms Backfire," 104 Mich. L. Rev. 837 (2006). But my conclusion was that the online environment affords consumers and especially watchdog groups easy access to terms (assuming they must be disclosed) who can "spread the word about unreasonable terms. * * * Even if disclosure backfires in the short term perhaps eventually the word will get out about a business's unsavory terms." 104 Mich. at 853, 856. So market forces, in conjunction with disclosure, may create a positive result. In fact, as a general matter, I don't think Omri and Carl sufficiently contemplate how the new world of digital communication might affect disclosure laws for the better.
"[S]ome commentators believe police use Miranda to inveigle suspects into seeing the police as their friends." (173) This seems rather weak evidence to build a case against the Miranda warnings. Relatedly, Omri and Carl also venture that Web privacy notices "soothe consumers' privacy worries and builds trust in the firm * * *." (173) The authors ignore the consumer uproar when Google and Facebook tried to enhance their right to collect personal data.
Omri and Carl assert that the Principles of the Law of Software Contracts' strategy of disclosure would mean that "the consumer would lose the right to withdraw from the contract" after opening the box and reading the terms. (174) But after opening the box, licensees are even less likely to read the terms no less decide to return the software based on the content of the terms. Further, Maureen and I heard lots of testimony concerning the difficulty of returning software after a licensee opens the box. So the loss of this right, which is far from certain under the software contract principles, seems inconsequential.
"More information is not better if it is wrong, or misleadingly incomplete, or irrelevant * * *." (175) This is true, of course, but the problem calls for a careful examination of which disclosures actually suffer from these infirmities, not for a blunderbuss approach of doing away with all disclosures. For example, the information contained in the disclosure of an end user licensing agreement is not "wrong, or misleadingly incomplete," and it is highly relevant.
"[M]arginally useful medical disclosures can drive out necessary but unmandated information." (175) The authors assert that because patients receive medical disclosures they lose sight of more important information concerning, for example, how to manage a chronic illness. I am doubtful.
Sharing a few anecdotes, the authors rail against disclosure because it allows some consumer buyers and home purchasers to avoid transactions by invoking "disclosure technicalities." (177) Perhaps some consumers do engage in this conduct, but we need to know how many consumers avoid transactions on justifiable grounds because of disclosures.
Chapter 12: "Beyond Disclosurism"
As already mentioned, Omri and Carl have made an important contribution to the disclosure debate by amassing and explaining the many problems of disclosure. I recommend the book for this reason. However, they seem to believe that their case is so strong that they do not have to worry too much about alternatives. In fact, they call alternatives to disclosure "the wrong—indeed a bad—question." (183) I am uncomfortable with that conclusion.
Notwithstanding the 'bad question," Omri and Carl present some alternatives to mandated disclosure. For example, the authors discuss the potential of intermediaries such as consultants and “information aggregators.” (186) However, they are not very enthusiastic about consultants as an option (“consultants can be unreliable” and they are often the disclosers themselves, “lack[ing] the incentive, patience, and reliability to evaluate and warn * * * of the fine print.”) (187) According to the authors, however, “information aggregators,” show more potential. Such aggregators can gather information from “surveys and research, feedback and observation” without the need for mandated disclosure." (187-188) But in my view, the question is wide open as to whether consumers really would be better off by relying on aggregators. The answer is probably that in some circumstances yes, and some no. Further, although some aggregators may not gather their information as the result of mandated disclosure, the authors concede that others do. For example, watchdog groups that monitor the terms of software end user license agreements can collect their information by accessing disclosed terms on the Internet. In response, the authors remark that mandatory disclosure “to eager and sophisticated intermediaries seems much more sensible than the present system.” (188) But at least in the software contract setting, what is the harm in allowing consumers to see the disclosures as well?
In the end, Omri and Carl turn to mandatory terms as a substitute for mandatory disclosure, although they are fully aware of the tradeoffs in pursuing this paternalistic policy. Perhaps ultimately wary of such a solution, the authors retreat by discussing examples in which they believe no regulation is warranted at all. But they supply a curious example. They mention Google and Facebook privacy policies as examples of terms that do not require regulation because users "seem not to feel degraded [by the loss of rights] or even to notice" the terms. (194) But disclosure of the companies' privacy policies combined with the power of the Internet to get the word out about the loss of privacy under the terms caused both companies to change or at least to respond to the criticism of their privacy policies.
"More Than You Wanted to Know" is very successful in inventorying the plethora of mandated disclosure strategies and explaining why they are overused and problematic. The book also usefully contemplates whether "mandatory disclosure can be saved," (118) although the authors conclude too readily that various strategies for doing so are also doomed to failure. In my view, the book would be even more successful if the authors spent more time identifying the kinds of disclosures that might work and considering how to improve current disclosure law, rather than condemning virtually all mandated disclosure.