Promises and Privacy: Promissory Estoppel and Confidential Disclosure in Online Communities
Volume 82, No. 4, Winter 2009
By Woodrow Hartzog [PDF]

Online communities often provide significant support for those who seek it. Yet in order to take advantage of that support, users must frequently disclose sensitive information such as dating profiles, candid thoughts, or even past substance abuse. What happens when other community members fail to keep this potentially harmful information confidential? Traditional remedies will likely fail to protect people when members of an online community violate the confidentiality of other members. In this Article, I contend that promissory estoppel, an equitable doctrine designed to protect those who detrimentally rely on promises, can ensure confidentiality for members of online communities. The application of promissory estoppel via a website’s terms of use agreement as a method for protecting disclosure has substantial advantages over tort-based, technological, or contractual remedies. Under the third-party beneficiary doctrine or the concept of dual agency, these agreements could create a safe place to disclose information due to mutual ability to enforce promises of confidentiality.

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