Author: Danielle D’Onfro
The rise of cloud computing has dramatically changed how consumers and firms store their belongings. Property that owners once managed directly now exists primarily on infrastructure maintained by intermediaries. Consumers entrust their photos to Apple instead of scrap-books; businesses put their documents on Amazon’s servers instead of in file cabinets; seemingly everything runs in the cloud. Were these belongings tangible, the relationship between owner and intermediary would be governed by the common-law doctrine of bailment. Bailments are mandatory relationships formed when one party entrusts their property to another. Within this relationship, the bailees owe the bailors a duty of care and may be liable if they failed to return the property. The parties can use contract to customize the relationship but not to disclaim entirely.
Tracing the law of bailment relationships from its ancient roots to the present, this Article argues that cloud storage should be understood as creating a bailment relationship. The law of bailment, though developed in the Middle Ages, provides a robust framework for governing twenty-first century electronic intermediaries. Though the kind of stored property has changed, the parties’ expectations and incentives have not. Yet the decline of litigation, the rise of arbitration, federal diversity jurisdiction, and the ever-growing dominance of contract has thus far prevented courts from applying the law of bailments to these new services.
Recognizing cloud storage as a bailment would have significant implications. Most immediately, it would suggest that important provisions in many cloud storage services’ contracts are unenforceable. A hand-collected dataset of 61 cloud storage contracts, reveals that most have include general disclaimers for any liability for lost data. These disclaimers are inconsistent with the duty of care that is the foundation of the law of bailment. In addition, understand-ing cloud storage as a bailment would have important implications for both the law of consumer protection and Fourth Amendment protections.
D’Onfro, Danielle Frances, The New Bailments (February 12, 2021). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3785711