Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Annoyancetech Vigilante Torts and Policy

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Annoyancetech Vigilante Torts and Policy

Article excerpt


The twenty-first century has ushered in demand by some Americans for annoyancetech devices--novel electronic gadgets that secretly fend off, punish, or comment upon perceived antisocial and annoying behaviors of others. Manufacturers, marketers, and users of certain annoyancetech devices, however, face potential tort liability for personal and property damages suffered by the targets of this "revenge by gadget." Federal, state, and local policymakers should start the process of coming to pragmatic terms with the troubling rise in the popularity of annoyancetech devices. This is an area of social policy that cries out for thoughtful and creative legislative solutions.

     A. Intentional Torts and Negligence Defenses
        1. Traditional Intentional Tort Defenses
        2. Traditional Negligence Tort Defenses
        3. Analogical Self-Help Defenses
     B. Strict Liability Tort Defenses
     A. The Historical Problematics and Uses of Vigilante
     B. Twenty-First-Century Extreme American
        Neighborhood Trends
     C. Some Sociological Perspectives


Technology is a two-edged sword: new machines, devices, processes, contrivances, appliances, tools, and gizmos can bring benefits; but there are negative consequences to boot. (1) Indeed, at one time the federal government funded an Office of Technology Assessment ("OTA") (now defunct) that studied new and emerging technologies and issued reports on how to manage and regulate these cutting edge tools. (2)

It is fundamental, of course, that at least since the early years of the twentieth century, tort law has imposed liability on manufacturers, sellers, and users of products (whether new or old). Under theories of warranty, intentional torts, negligence, and strict liability (of one sort or the other), tort law has awarded damages to victims of technology gone awry or misused. (3)

A beguiling recent development, however, raises interesting legal questions. In an August 2007 Wall Street Journal article, innocuously placed in the "Weekend Journal" section, readers learned of "the growing ranks of electronic vigilantes" who have started to deploy novel gadgetry to secretly fend off, punish, or comment upon annoying behavior of their fellow Americans. (4) "Thanks to the falling cost of microcontroller chips and the lure of easy online sales, inventors are turning out record numbers of gadgets. One growing subset of these inventions: products that help people neutralize antisocial behavior at the push of a button." (5)

Who are the purveyors of these new anti-antisocial behavior contraptions? "The brains behind these devices range from entrepreneurs in suburban Los Angeles to graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology." (6) Some examples are illuminating: (1) "A Tennessee company has created a $50 device that shuts up other people's dogs by answering their barks with an ultrasonic squeal that humans can't hear," and is deceptively inserted in a backyard birdhouse; (7) (2) "British inventors are exporting a new product for people who hate lousy drivers--it's a luminescent screen that fits in a car's rear window and, at the driver's command, flashes one of five messages to other motorists" including "Back Off," "Idiot," "a sad face," a happy face and--not yet widely disseminated, but demanded by some purchasers of the screen--"offensive hand gestures"; (8) (3) MIT's Media Lab, which has coined the new word "annoyancetech" has developed a '"No-Contact Jacket' that, when activated with a controller, delivers a blast of electricity to anyone who touches the person wearing it"; (9) (4) the "Annoy-a-tron," designed for simple revenge by allowing a user to hide the device under the desks of one's enemies with the device emitting "a loud, piercing little beep"; (10) (5) a specially revamped iPod which silences annoying FM radio stations in taxicabs; (11) (6) "TV-B-Gone," "a $20 handset that allows people to shut off loud televisions in public places like doctor's offices and bars"; (12) (7) "cellphone [sic] jammers"; (13) (8) "the Mosquito,"--marketed by a firm called "Kids Be Gone"--which "emits high-frequency sounds particularly irritating to congregations of teenagers"; (14) and (9) an invention called the '"I-Bomb' that emits an electromagnetic pulse that disables all electronics in its range (a similar device was depicted in the movie 'Ocean's Eleven')" (15) and that, for instance, could be used to shut down a neighbor playing loud music on her stereo. …

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