User trust is an essential resource for the information economy. Without it, users would not provide their personal information and digital businesses could not operate.
Digital companies do not protect this trust sufficiently. Instead, many take advantage of it for short-term gain. They act in ways that, over time, will undermine user trust. In so doing, they act against their own best interest.
This Article shows that companies behave this way because they face a tragedy of the commons. When a company takes advantage of user trust for profit, it appropriates the full benefit of this action. However, it shares the cost with all other companies that rely on the wellspring of user trust. Each company, acting rationally, has an incentive to appropriate as much of the trust resource as it can. That is why such companies collect, analyze, and “monetize” our personal information in such an unrestrained way.
This behavior poses a longer term risk. User trust is like a fishery. It can withstand a certain level of exploitation and renew itself. But over-exploitation can cause it to collapse. Were digital companies collectively to undermine user trust this would not only hurt the users, it would damage the companies themselves. This Article explores commons-management theory for potential solutions to this impending tragedy of the trust commons.
Dennis D. Hirsch, Privacy, Public Goods, and the Tragedy of the Trust Commons: A Response to Professors Fairfield and Engel, 65 Duke Law Journal Online 67-93 (2016)