Should robots be given legal personhood?

By Dr. Caroline Cauffman

 

On 7 February 2019, the SSH Synergy conference 2019 took place in Bussum. The aim of the SSH Synergy conferences is to bring together academics from all disciplines of Social Sciences and Humanities, policy makers and professionals from civil society organisations involved in SSH research in order to discuss themes of current interest. In 2019, the focus was on the theme of Digitalisation. The conference included a number of key note speeches, parallel sessions, a science battle alongside the possibility to network while visiting an info market with organisations from science, society and industry.

NWO offered SSH researchers the possibility to propose topics for the parallel sessions. We were fortunate enough to have our proposal selected and to be given the opportunity to organise two debate sessions in the afternoon on the question of whether robots (which we use as shorthand for artificially intelligent entities) should be given legal personhood.

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Remedying Wrongs on a Decentralized Internet: An Exploratory Dialogue

 

Workshop convened by the Empirical Legal Studies Discussion Group (Oxford University) in collaboration with the Institute for Work and Employment (FAA-HSG, University of St. Gallen) and the Maastricht Law and Tech Lab (Maastricht University), based on an initial theme exploration by Catalina Goanta (Maastricht University), Andres Guadamuz (University of Sussex), Felix Pflücke (Oxford University) and Isabelle Wildhaber (University of St. Gallen).

15 March 2019, Faculty of Law, Oxford University

Rewind to the early 1990’s: an infant World Wide Web recently created by Tim Berners-Lee was starting to redefine the way people were connected globally. First came communication services (e-mail) and a shift from physical to digital marketplaces (e-commerce). Then came the rise of Internet platforms, in what is now deemed to be Web 2.0 – prosumers generate content on platforms such as Youtube, Facebook, Instagram (social media), or offer their individual services on Uber, AirBnB or Taskrabbit (peer-to-peer/gig platforms). These developments have been both lauded and criticized. On the one hand, the Internet as we know it dissolved geographic distances, created new industries, facilitated the distribution of goods of services and empowered individual employment. On the other hand, it gave rise to new questions about what is real and what is fake: what to do if someone posts fake reviews; who to hold accountable for fake news; how to prevent a new wave of labour exploitation, etc. The critics of Web 2.0 claim it is a spoiled version of early Internet promises: freedom from surveillance, online safety (even through anonymity) – in a nutshell, more control and power for the user. Painful public scandals like the sort of Equifax or Cambridge Analytica make it easy to argue that with the rise of data as a commodity, Internet users have indeed lost a lot of this control to data brokers, surveillance agencies and hackers. The answer to the problems of Web 2.0 is thought to be the third era of the Internet, namely the Decentralized Internet. Blockchain platforms like Steem are used to make decentralized equivalents of a lot of apps we have grown accustomed to: DTube instead of Youtube, Graphite Docs instead of Google Docs, or Storj instead of iCloud. The main benefit of decentralization – beyond privacy – is said to be the freedom from monopolies held by centralized platforms that now determine, through their own intransparent algorithms, who gets to see what information on the web. In addition, decentralization proposes a new, trustless constellation of behavioural incentives (e.g. Smart Media Tokens, etc.) and communication infrastructure devoid of intermediaries. But while there might be some strong market opportunities to embrace in a new Internet era, the law does not move into new ages with the same speed. Decentralization has already been occurring, in the form of individual accessibility: citizen reporters are disrupting press, entertainment and advertising services, and gig drivers are replacing taxis. Emerging practical issues are under-regulated, and challenge legal systems to determine if their classical paradigms are still fitting: is posting fake negative reviews a crime? Are Youtubers professionals or individuals? Do Internet platforms have a duty of care? Moreover, not just public institutions, but platforms themselves face a problem of scale, and struggle with enforcing legal standards. These are problems that have yet to be solved, which a new Internet version might very well inherit. This small-scale event aims to kickstart an interdisciplinary debate on decentralization interpreted in two ways: (i) the decentralization of accessibility (as described above); and (ii) the decentralization of Internet services as proposed by cryptonetworks, which use consensus mechanisms and cryptocurrencies for maintenance and incentives. These interpretations take decentralization to be a central theme for the development of the Internet. The workshop will focus on different contributions that identify potential legal wrongs arising out of decentralization, with the goal of exploring old and new remedies (both substantive and procedural) that could correct them, while emphasizing the role of technology in delivering these potential remedies.

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The impact of free digital offers on individual behavior and its implications for consumer and data protection laws

Two days ago, I received great news! I was awarded a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship to conduct research on how offers for free digital goods and services influence people’s decision about their personal data and consumer rights. This three-year project will be supervised by Jan Smits. It will include collaboration with researchers from the UM School of Business and Economics and a research stay at ETH Zurich with the Law, Economics, and Business Group led by Alexander Stremitzer.

The idea for this research started with a simple observation that there is an abundance of digital goods and services offered for free. We can communicate with our friends through social networks, store our files in clouds, navigate the city, manage our finances or even find a life partner using mobile applications or online services without paying a single penny.

When looking closer at these offers, it can be, however, noticed that free does not yet mean that we give nothing in exchange. We do provide our private information and attention that might be profitably used by suppliers of free digital content. Since these transactions affect consumers and their personal data, they fall within the scope of two fields of the EU law – data protection and consumer law. The overall objectives of these two areas of law are to protect the privacy of consumers and to balance their position against more powerful transaction partners, i.e., businesses. The question which interests me most is whether these objectives are indeed achieved with the current design of the rules, given people’s heuristics and biases in decision making about free products. Behavioral research has demonstrated that consumers tend to overestimate the benefits and underestimate nonmonetary costs of free digital content in the form of exposure to advertisements. Yet, it is still unknown how free offers influence consumer decisions that are relevant from a legal perspective, i.e., decisions that involve consumer rights and privacy. During my MSCA Fellowship, I will conduct online experiments to address this knowledge gap.

Specifically, I will aim to answer the following research questions:

  1. How does offering digital content at a zero price but in exchange for personal data influence consumers’ decisions about:
    • use of digital content,
    • sharing of personal data,
    • use of contractual and data protection rights, e.g., request to repair the defective content or to delete personal data.
  2. Will these decisions change if consumers are provided with information that:
    • consumer personal data are supplied as counter-performance for free digital content?
    • consumer personal data are valuable?

With the proposed experimental studies, I will provide further insights on consumer behavior by identifying how consumers make decisions regarding free digital content supplied in exchange for personal information. These transactions have been recognized as in need for a policy intervention and have been subject to recent legal initiatives in the EU such as the General Data Protection Regulation or the Digital Content Directive. The stakes are non-trivial. Although consumers do not pay money for free digital products, they do suffer detriment when a product fails to function properly (e.g., costs of time spent on repairment) or due to abuse of personal data they shared in exchange. Crucially, free offers might affect one of the most vulnerable groups of consumers that is low-income consumers who cannot afford paying for digital products. Thus, the overarching goal of this research is to learn whether there is room for improving welfare of consumers of free digital content and what further measures could be implemented to achieve such an improvement.

Since this is my very first post on the MEPLI blog, I would like to take this opportunity to briefly introduce myself to its readers. I am an Assistant Professor of Empirical Legal Research at the UM Faculty of Law. Before coming to Maastricht, I was a post-doctoral fellow and an LLM student at the NYU School of Law. I got into experimental research during my doctoral studies at the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods in Bonn. There I worked together with economists and psychologists investigating the impact of law on human behavior. For instance, I ran a series of experiments aimed to understand the influence of gender- and performance-based selection procedures on group cooperation (more details here). Based on my own and other empirical research I developed legal arguments contributing to the discussion on introducing gender quotas in corporate boards. I also investigated experimentally how payoff-irrelevant terms (i.e., a fixed-term vs. open-end contract duration) can impact contractual behavior (more details here). When at NYU I expanded my empirical toolkit and  started analyzing the content of contracts governing transactions for free and paid digital content. This helped me generate further research questions that I am going to address as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow. I will keep you posted about the results of this research project, so stay tuned!

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Brexit and the Economics of Federalism

By Prof. Dr. Niels Philipsen

 

With Brexit, Yellow Jackets and EU-scepticism dominating the news and everyday discussions, I would like to direct MEPLI blog readers’ attention to some of the lessons that law and economics can offer to the (polarizing) debate on the future of the EU. My impression is that many academics, perhaps also some colleagues, too quickly label certain voters (those who supported Brexit and those who vote for EU-sceptic political parties) as ‘stupid’ and lacking the intelligence to understand and vote on topics like immigration, monetary policy, and environmental law. In my view this is not the right way to contribute to the debate. We need a much more balanced view. Perhaps, law and economics can help.

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Vincenzo Cento and “The United States of Europe”

By Dr. William Bull

 

On 16 December 2018, I had the pleasure of visiting the home town of my late Italian grandfather, a small hilltop community called Pollenza, in the lesser known region of Le Marche. The Italian side of my family, the famiglia Cento, has produced a number of academics, including both my mother, Anna Cento Bull, Professor of Italian History and Politics at the University of Bath, and my grandfather, Alberto Cento, Professor of French language and literature at the University of Naples. What I had not realised, however, is that my great-grandfather was also a renowned scholar, and apparently quite an important name in the town of Pollenza.

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The Regulation of Social Media Influencers, 11 January, Maastricht

BOOK WORKSHOP

11 January 2019
Maastricht University, Faculty of Law 

As people turn away from classical advertising channels such as television, print or radio, social media platforms such as Instagram, Youtube, and more recently Tik Tok, are establishing themselves as marketing outlets in the search of consumer engagement. Powered by the generation of online content by their users, consumers who produce content – or in other words prosumers, these platforms now feature hundreds if not thousands of popular individuals who amass impressive amounts of followers. Active in any possible industries that appeal to their followers, ranging from gaming to pets, lifestyle, beauty or health and fitness, social media influencers continuously create content for their fans to keep them updated on different products and services, in the form of reviews.


On the one hand, empowering users to start their own channels or accounts and be able to gather revenue as an alternative to a classical job sounds promising: there are no market entry requirements, it provides the much-coveted millennial work flexibility, and can be a great alternative if job prospects are dire. On the other hand, influencer marketing raises fundamental legal and moral questions. As a lot of the content posted by influencers on social media is sponsored by the companies behind the products or services they review, without any notification: how should the audience draw the line between honest opinions and paid endorsement? What is more, the business models used by influencers are obscure at best. Most influencers start small, very likely as an individual and not as a freelancer or a business, so it is very difficult to tell who owns a specific account and what their obligations are to their audiences: is it a company that must comply with advertising laws and consumer protection, or is it peers, not bound by the same high standard? What happens with content which entails health risks, such as the promotion of cosmetic surgery or medical products? In addition, given that impressionable children between 7 and 15 are constantly present on social media, should they benefit from any additional protections?

This workshop brings together interdisciplinary approaches to some of the less visible issues posed by advertising on social media, and is supported by the Independent Social Research Foundation, the Maastricht European Private Law Institute and the University of Groningen. Each speaker in the event is currently authoring a chapter in the book The Regulation of Social Media Influencers (Elgar, forthcoming 2019), edited by Sofia Ranchordás and Catalina Goanta. The event will also feature a keynote speech by Madeleine de Cock Buning, Professor (Utrecht University /EUI), Chairman of the Dutch Media Authority (CvdM) and Chair of the European Commission’s High-Level Expert Group (HLEG) on fake news and disinformation.

The full programme and registration are available here. The workshop is free of charge, but places are limited. Registrations will be open until 5 January. For any additional inquiries, you can send an email to catalina.goanta@maastrichtuniversity.nl.

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