“Each day when you open your news feed there’s a new and complex legal problem created by technology,” says Suffolk University Law School Professor Michael Rustad. “Today,” he continues, “there’s a story about a company that offers customers the chance to order up to 250,000 Twitter followers and buy likes and retweets.”
Rustad and Professor Thomas Koenig of Northeastern University have written a new book, Global Information Technologies, Ethics and the Law (West Academic 2018), to help legal practitioners, technologists, and students shape practical responses to the wide-ranging ethical and legal challenges making headlines across the world.
Another recent story involves ticket companies that use computer algorithms, called bots, that pretend to be humans, snatching up thousands of tickets to popular music concerts only to turn around and sell those same tickets at whopping mark-ups.
And that’s just one kind of legal technology question—bots pretending to be humans--where the legal framework may require rethinking to keep up with tech-savvy entrepreneurs. There are thousands of legal and ethical dilemmas, Rustad says.
One fascinating legal quandary taken up in the book is a potential legal framework to govern liability in smart cars. While the total number of injury cases will be massively reduced by driverless cars, the liability issues are complex and require new thinking says Rustad. “Let’s say a driverless car’s artificial intelligence system chooses to avoid hitting a bicyclist and instead swerves into a bus stop killing a group of children. In this case, rather than a split-second decision made by a human, the decision will be coded into the car. Should the car or software manufacturer be immune from liability?”
If we want the driverless car’s decision-making to continually become safer, he said, we need a liability regime similar to that with cars, where seat belts and other car design improvements were spurred by damage payments to plaintiffs in tort cases. Currently, though, software makers are not liable, so major legal changes would be required.
In the area of contracts law, Professor Koenig says, it’s reasonable to ask whether it should be legal for social media and other tech companies to seed in clauses in their terms of agreement that make it impossible for users to join class action suits against the company, that require arbitration in far-flung countries, or cap damages at $100, more than the cost of filing a suit.
Another challenge in the smart car era: Should your insurance company have access to your driving speeds? Should you be able to get cheaper insurance if you agree to sharing data from the speed chip in your car?
Once you finally buy the coveted smart refrigerator, the appliance may be able to monitor whether you are complying with your doctor’s dietary restrictions. Should the fridge manufacturer have the right to sell your refrigerator data to your health insurance provider?
Rustad says the book doesn’t try to pretend that there’s a right answer to the thorny questions, but gives readers context and a set of tools to help them reach their own conclusions. “Most people aren’t purely libertarian or utilitarian or any of the other ethical mindsets we lay out in the book, but if you start with those perspectives, as well as some sense of the history of relevant precedent, computer ethics norms, and legal approaches in other countries, you bring a much more informed voice to the table,” he said.
With so many companies offering their services across multiple countries, “you can’t just know American law on say torts, contracts, intellectual property, or privacy. American courts have upheld the right of companies to create an auto-renewal feature for a subscription, without additional notice. That’s a contractual agreement that wouldn’t fly in Europe,” Rustad says. And unlike the U.S., European consumer law prohibits class action waivers (language that would be inserted into a contract to prevent consumer from joining a class action) pre-dispute forced arbitration (language that would make it impossible for a consumer to bring suit in civil court) and disclaimers of warranties.
The European Union has much stricter laws protecting privacy rights of its citizens, Koenig adds. “But if you are working for a company that has international relationships or ambitions of international sales, you really can’t operate in a purely American legal framework. Practitioners who bring a more international mindset and understand the frameworks being used in other countries can save their companies a lot of money and time,” he said.
One of the book’s important focus points is consumer privacy. The European Court of Justice recently struck down a legal structure through which Facebook was able to send data about European citizens to the U.S. Until recently, Facebook was able to police itself regarding maintaining adequate privacy controls protecting European Citizens. New regulations are massively ratcheting up fines for privacy violations.