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Law and technology: playing catch-up

Law and technology: playing catch-up

Published: 10 Aug 2012 13:59 GMT+02:00
Updated: 10 Aug 2012 13:59 GMT+02:00

The in-roads that computing has made into all aspects of our lives has left the law scrabbling to catch up. Stockholm University was one of the earliest institutions to specialize in this issue.

From Facebook and Google fending off accusations of privacy infringement, to Chinese activists demanding the removal of online censorship, the often-blurred line between right and wrong when it comes to legal issues online, has never had such a high profile.

As Sweden has benefitted from being one of the most advanced countries in terms of use of information communication technology (ICT), so too has the legal industry relating to the introduction of the technology.

And as a consequence of this, Stockholm and its University is leading the way when it comes to research into law and informatics. Here, the Swedish Law and Informatics Research Institute, (IRI) was established in as early as 1968, making it one of the oldest institutes in the field in the world.

IRI was founded by Professor Peter Seipel, who began looking at the rise of information technology and the possible effects it would have on the legal profession, throughout the 60s and 70s. In many ways, it is thanks to the foresight of the professor, who is still one of the lecturers on the Master in Law and Information Technology (LL.M) program, that Stockholm and its university enjoy such a good reputation today.

Daniel Westman, a Doctoral Student in Law and Information Technology at the Faculty of Law at Stockholm University, agrees that Seipel’s importance cannot be understated.

“He created this whole new subject in Sweden at such an early stage, so the country has a deep tradition with this kind of work. Sweden was one of the quickest to realize the possible effects of IT and its development, so we’ve been working with the issues and questions longer than elsewhere,” says Westman.

Another consequence of this prominence in the field is the high quality of education on offer, not just in Stockholm, but also at universities all over the country, where training in informatics law is obligatory on any legal course.

At IRI, the next generations of practitioners are taught by experts in a broad range of subjects, covering issues like the interpretation and application of rules and regulations in the digital environment, and the development of methods for legally customized system design and management.

Daniel Westman’s work highlights how the law and information technology interact with each other, covering issues such as copyright, personal data protection and freedom of information. A lot of his work focuses on the public sector and the sometimes-delicate relationship between public access to information and the protection of personal data and copyright.

One particularly hot issue for example, is the right to privacy online and the accessibility of personal information, which can then be exploited elsewhere.

“There is a lot of discussion at the moment over how to regulate and control things that happen online and how to keep the strengths and freedom that make the web so useful, but at the same time to provide a functioning legal framework within it,” says Westman.

“When you think of things like the Arab Spring and what a role the internet played you realize it is a very powerful tool for democracy and for exchanging opinions, but at the same time it is equally powerful for selling and distributing goods, and the law needs to follow both,” says Westman.

It is these kind of issues that form a major part of the role of IRI, which cooperates with public authorities, private companies and other organizations. In practice, this includes legal training, research questions and dealing with many other issues associated with the digital society we live in.

Outside the university, the Institute also collaborates extensively with other research centres, not only within Sweden but also abroad. The Law Faculty has strong ties with scholars of ICT Law in Britain, South Africa, Australia, Germany, Austria and the US, making this international aspect a key ingredient of its success.

In addition, those following informatics courses benefit from having guest lectures from law firms and governmental authorities as well as other leading practitioners in their respective fields, from all over the world.

The conclusion is that the same kind of questions, problems and issues arise in the world of technology, regardless of which country you happen to be working in at the time. All over the globe, as institutions large and small carry out the transition from paper based networks and databases to digital ones, the need to protect the rights of individuals must be weighed against the freedom of access to information.

More and more, people are trying to find new ways of not just keeping up with the ever changing playing field, but also trying to be one step ahead. Therefore the role and profile of organizations like IRI and Stockholm University look set to rise ever higher.

Article sponsored by Stockholm University.

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