University of Southern California

Empty Promises

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Article by Oren Bar-Gill & Kevin Davis
From Volume 84, Number 1 (November, 2010)

Consumer contracts are pervasive. Yet, the promises that make up these contracts are becoming increasingly empty, as sellers reserve the power to modify their contracts unilaterally. While some modifications benefit both sellers and consumers, others increase seller profits at the consumer’s expense. The law’s goal should be to facilitate good modifications, while preventing bad ones. Currently this goal is not met. The problem is twofold. First, consumers fail to appreciate the risk of unilateral modification and thus fail to demand a commitment by sellers to avoid inefficient modifications. Second, and more important, even if consumers demand a commitment to make only mutually beneficial modifications, existing commitment mechanisms—consumer assent to modifications, judicial review of modifications, and seller reputation—are inadequate. We propose a novel commitment mechanism: adding Change Approval Boards (“CABs”) as parties to consumer contracts. These CABs would selectively assent to, or withhold assent from, contractual changes that sellers wish to make, according to each CAB’s modification policy. We envision a market for CABs—multiple CABs, each striking a different balance between flexibility and security, offering a range of modification policies from which consumers can choose. The market-based CAB system promises to deter abusive term changes while retaining the flexibility to change consumer contracts when change is justified.

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