A Skeptical View of Information Fiduciaries
February 25, 2019
The concept of “information fiduciaries” has surged to the forefront of debates on online platform regulation. Developed by Professor Jack Balkin, the concept is meant to rebalance the relationship between ordinary individuals and the digital companies that accumulate, analyze, and sell their personal data for profit. Just as the law imposes special duties of care, confidentiality, and loyalty on doctors, lawyers, and accountants vis-à-vis their patients and clients, Balkin argues, so too should it impose special duties on corporations such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter vis-à-vis their end users. Over the past several years, this argument has garnered remarkably broad support and essentially zero critical pushback.
This Essay seeks to disrupt the emerging consensus by identifying a number of lurking tensions and ambiguities in the theory of information fiduciaries, as well as a number of reasons to doubt the theory’s capacity to resolve them satisfactorily. Although we agree with Balkin that the harms stemming from dominant online platforms call for legal intervention, we question whether the concept of information fiduciaries is an adequate or apt response to the problems of information insecurity that he stresses, much less to more fundamental problems associated with outsized market share and business models built on pervasive surveillance. We also call attention to the potential costs of adopting an information-fiduciary framework—a framework that, we fear, invites an enervating complacency toward online platforms’ structural power and a premature abandonment of more robust visions of public regulation.