Trade Agreements and Restatements as End Runs Around the Rule of Law

Kristian Stout —  15 February 2018

The Internet is a modern miracle: from providing all varieties of entertainment, to facilitating life-saving technologies, to keeping us connected with distant loved ones, the scope of the Internet’s contribution to our daily lives is hard to overstate. Moving forward there is undoubtedly much more that we can and will do with the Internet, and part of that innovation will, naturally, require a reconsideration of existing laws and how new Internet-enabled modalities fit into them.

But when undertaking such a reconsideration, the goal should not be simply to promote Internet-enabled goods above all else; rather, it should be to examine the law’s effect on the promotion of new technology within the context of other, competing social goods. In short, there are always trade-offs entailed in changing the legal order. As such, efforts to reform, clarify, or otherwise change the law that affects Internet platforms must be balanced against other desirable social goods, not automatically prioritized above them.

Unfortunately — and frequently with the best of intentions — efforts to promote one good thing (for instance, more online services) inadequately take account of the balance of the larger legal realities at stake. And one of the most important legal realities that is too often readily thrown aside in the rush to protect the Internet is that policy be established through public, (relatively) democratically accountable channels.

Trade deals and domestic policy

Recently a letter was sent by a coalition of civil society groups and law professors asking the NAFTA delegation to incorporate U.S.-style intermediary liability immunity into the trade deal. Such a request is notable for its timing in light of the ongoing policy struggles over SESTA —a bill currently working its way through Congress that seeks to curb human trafficking through online platforms — and the risk that domestic platform companies face of losing (at least in part) the immunity provided by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. But this NAFTA push is not merely about a tradeoff between less trafficking and more online services, but between promoting policies in a way that protects the rule of law and doing so in a way that undermines the rule of law.

Indeed, the NAFTA effort appears to be aimed at least as much at sidestepping the ongoing congressional fight over platform regulation as it is aimed at exporting U.S. law to our trading partners. Thus, according to EFF, for example, “[NAFTA renegotiation] comes at a time when Section 230 stands under threat in the United States, currently from the SESTA and FOSTA proposals… baking Section 230 into NAFTA may be the best opportunity we have to protect it domestically.”

It may well be that incorporating Section 230 into NAFTA is the “best opportunity” to protect the law as it currently stands from efforts to reform it to address conflicting priorities. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. In fact, whatever one thinks of the merits of SESTA, it is not obviously a good idea to use a trade agreement as a vehicle to override domestic reforms to Section 230 that Congress might implement. Trade agreements can override domestic law, but that is not the reason we engage in trade negotiations.

In fact, other parts of NAFTA remain controversial precisely for their ability to undermine domestic legal norms, in this case in favor of guaranteeing the expectations of foreign investors. EFF itself is deeply skeptical of this “investor-state” dispute process (“ISDS”), noting that “[t]he latest provisions would enable multinational corporations to undermine public interest rules.” The irony here is that ISDS provides a mechanism for overriding domestic policy that is a close analogy for what EFF advocates for in the Section 230/SESTA context.

ISDS allows foreign investors to sue NAFTA signatories in a tribunal when domestic laws of that signatory have harmed investment expectations. The end result is that the signatory could be responsible for paying large sums to litigants, which in turn would serve as a deterrent for the signatory to continue to administer its laws in a similar fashion.

Stated differently, NAFTA currently contains a mechanism that favors one party (foreign investors) in a way that prevents signatory nations from enacting and enforcing laws approved of by democratically elected representatives. EFF and others disapprove of this.

Yet, at the same time, EFF also promotes the idea that NAFTA should contain a provision that favors one party (Internet platforms) in a way that would prevent signatory nations from enacting and enforcing laws like SESTA that (might be) approved of by democratically elected representatives.

A more principled stance would be skeptical of the domestic law override in both contexts.

Restating Copyright or creating copyright policy?

Take another example: Some have suggested that the American Law Institute (“ALI”) is being used to subvert Congressional will. Since 2013, ALI has taken upon itself the project to “restate” the law of copyright. ALI is well known and respected for its common law restatements, but it may be that something more than mere restatement is going on here. As the NY Bar Association recently observed:

The Restatement as currently drafted appears inconsistent with the ALI’s long-standing goal of promoting clarity in the law: indeed, rather than simply clarifying or restating that law, the draft offers commentary and interpretations beyond the current state of the law that appear intended to shape current and future copyright policy.  

It is certainly odd that ALI (or any other group) would seek to restate a body of law that is already stated in the form of an overarching federal statute. The point of a restatement is to gather together the decisions of disparate common law courts interpreting different laws and precedent in order to synthesize a single, coherent framework approximating an overall consensus. If done correctly, a restatement of a federal statute would, theoretically, end up with the exact statute itself along with some commentary about how judicial decisions have filled in the blanks differently — a state of affairs that already exists with the copious academic literature commenting on federal copyright law.

But it seems that merely restating judicial interpretations was not the only objective behind the copyright restatement effort. In a letter to ALI, one of the scholars responsible for the restatement project noted that:

While congressional efforts to improve the Copyright Act… may be a welcome and beneficial development, it will almost certainly be a long and contentious process… Register Pallante… [has] not[ed] generally that “Congress has moved slowly in the copyright space.”

Reform of copyright law, in other words, and not merely restatement of it, was an important impetus for the project. As an attorney for the Copyright Office observed, “[a]lthough presented as a “Restatement” of copyright law, the project would appear to be more accurately characterized as a rewriting of the law.” But “rewriting” is a job for the legislature. And even if Congress moves slowly, or the process is frustrating, the democratic processes that produce the law should still be respected.

Pyrrhic Policy Victories

Attempts to change copyright or entrench liability immunity through any means possible are rational actions at an individual level, but writ large they may undermine the legal fabric of our system and should be resisted.

It’s no surprise why some may be frustrated and concerned about intermediary liability and copyright issues: On the margin, it’s definitely harder to operate an Internet platform if it faces sweeping liability for the actions of third parties (whether for human trafficking or infringing copyrights). Maybe copyright law needs to be reformed and perhaps intermediary liability must be maintained exactly as it is (or expanded). But the right way to arrive at these policy outcomes is not through backdoors — and it is not to begin with the assertion that such outcomes are required.

Congress and the courts can be frustrating vehicles through which to enact public policy, but they have the virtue of being relatively open to public deliberation, and of having procedural constraints that can circumscribe excesses and idiosyncratic follies. We might get bad policy from Congress. We might get bad cases from the courts. But the theory of our system is that, on net, having a frustratingly long, circumscribed, and public process will tend to weed out most of the bad ideas and impulses that would otherwise result from unconstrained decision making, even if well-intentioned.

We should meet efforts like these to end-run Congress and the courts with significant skepticism. Short term policy “victories” are likely not worth the long-run consequences. These are important, complicated issues. If we surreptitiously adopt idiosyncratic solutions to them, we risk undermining the rule of law itself.

Kristian Stout

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Kristian Stout is the Associate Director for Innovation Policy at the International Center for Law and Economics (ICLE) and a contributor to TheHill.com. As a technology professional and entrepreneur for over ten years, Kristian’s scholarship is influenced by a practical understanding of the challenges facing innovators in the modern economy. Kristian has previously been a lecturer in the computer science department of Rutgers University, is frequently invited to speak on law and technology topics, and has been published in law journals and legal treatises. Kristian is an attorney licensed to practice law in New Jersey and Pennsylvania; is a partner at A&S Technologies, a software services firm; a member of the NJ State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights; and sits on the board of the New Jersey Leadership Program, a nonprofit that places southasian youth into political internships in New Jersey.