A Window of Opportunity to Regulate Addictive Technologies

We spend large parts of our days on screens. Often more than we intend to. Screen time has increased steadily for over a decade, even before the Covid-19 pandemic. This is no coincidence. Reports leaking from Silicon Valley revealed that tech companies used manipulative designs to extend users’ time on screens. The internet economy’s business model relies on extending user time online to collect more data and target more advertising at users.

This Article aims to answer why regulators did not intervene for years to protect users, especially children, from the harms of excessive screen time. It does so by developing law and technology theory to examine what influences the creation and breadth of windows of opportunity to regulate new technologies. Specifically, it identifies three factors that can obstruct the creation of meaningful windows of opportunity: (i) the invisibility of the technology; (ii) rapid entrenchment of norms and business interests; and (iii) social and institutional resistance to early intervention. The article also offers insight into how the occurrence of mega-historical events can reopen windows of opportunity by shaking up entrenched norms and practices.

The Article sheds light on how a window of opportunity to regulate addictive technologies failed to originally materialize, while re-opening later. First, the technology design that made screens addictive was invisible. As a result, users did not notice that their time online was gradually extended. By the time that public reports raised awareness of the technology addiction and overuse problem, both user norms and business interests were deeply engrained. Screens permeated practically every aspect of everyday lives. And, the primary business model of the internet economy relied on maximizing user time. Second, U.S. regulators generally resist early intervention, particularly of information technology and the Internet. Unsurprisingly, they opted for a wait-and-see approach in addressing technology overuse. Finally, the Article argues that the Covid-19 pandemic was a mega-historical event that created a window of opportunity to tackle the technology overuse problem. While the pandemic exacerbated the problem by significantly increasing screen time, it also made the technology visible. People realized how much time they spent on screens and how it affected them. This realization, coupled with increasing scientific evidence of the harms of technology overuse, created a window to regulate addictive technologies.

Volume 2022, No. 5

Foreword by Allie Boldt, Miriam Seifter, & Robert Yablon, State Shadow Dockets by Rebecca Frank Dallet & Matt Woleske, Modified Textualism in Wisconsin: A Case Study by Anuj C. Desai, The Textual Canons in Contracts Cases: A Preliminary Study by Ethan J. Lieb, Improving (and Avoiding) Interstate Interpretive Encounters by Aaron-Andrew P. Bruhl, Use of Convention History in State Constitutional Law by Maureen E. Brady, Preemption, Commandeering, and the Indian Child Welfare Act by Matthew L.M. Fletcher & Randall F. Khalil, Textualism, Judicial Supremacy, and the Independent State Legislature Theory by Leah M. Litman & Katherine Shaw, Interpreting Initiatives Sociologically by Glen Staszewski, Polarization, Nationalization, and the Constitutional Politics of Recent State Supreme Court Elections by Jane S. Schacter, Countering the New Election Subversion: The Democracy Principle and the Role of State Courts by Jessica Bulman-Pozen & Miriam Seifter

Making Sense of Legal Disruption

What does it mean for technology to disrupt law? Several possibilities come to mind. The first is that disruption refers to reshuffling some feature of the prevailing social order, destabilizing the balance of power and rights under prior law. Social impacts like these are instrumental to legal disruption—they often precipitate legal action to reverse or entrench the new status quo—but focusing on social impacts tells us little about the role or response of law itself.

The second possibility is disruption in the sense of challenging and changing substantive legal doctrine. This is perhaps the most popular and intuitive usage, and certainly a core concern for legal scholars. To define disruption this way, however, sweeps in too much. Change is an expected feature of a functional legal system rather than an indicator of anything remarkable. One might try to reserve the disruption label for particularly sudden changes or difficult doctrinal problems, but this solution invites further line-drawing questions. This framing of legal disruption is also incomplete: it begs for an account of why some doctrinal challenges prove more difficult than others.

This essay introduces a third possibility grounded in institutional analysis. By this account, legal disruption arises when technological change presents problems that are difficult to resolve through standard processes of making, enforcing, and updating the law. It arises fundamentally from the mismatch between the questions presented and the capabilities of existing legal institutions along the dimensions of authority, competence, and legitimacy. This account of disruption provides a schema for understanding how the difficulty of resolving techlaw problems extends beyond questions at the level of doctrine.

Volume 2022, No. 4

Articles: Selective Prosecution, Selective Enforcement, and Remedial Vagueness by Guy Rubenstein, Mission Critical: Caremark, Blue Bell, and Director Responsibility for Cybersecurity Governance, by H. Justin Pace & Lawrence J. Trautman, The Emerging Airspace Economy: A Framework for Airspace Rights in the Age of Drones by Lavi M. Ben Dor & Jonathan M. Hoffman

Comments: Stop Telephonin’ Me: The Problematically Narrow Conception of Telemarketing Abuse under the TCPA by Niall T. Martin, The ABCs of Gaming: Activision, Biden, and COVID-19 Set the Stage for Labor Unionization in the Video Game Industry by Laura C.S. Newberry