Keeping IT legal

The Centre for Law and IT at Bristol University opens its doors this week, with the aim of providing expert advice on the legal...

The Centre for Law and IT at Bristol University opens its doors this week, with the aim of providing expert advice on the legal issues that have an impact on the use of technology. Karl Cushing reports

British courts are stuffed with people who don't understand technology. This, at least, is the view of Andrew Charlesworth, the director of a new research centre for law and IT at Bristol University. He believes the UK has suffered from being in the first wave of the technology boom and this has had an impact on the effectiveness of IT-related legislation - especially that passed in the early 1990s.

The Bristol centre will address these shortfalls, such as denial of service attacks, which are not covered by the Computer Misuse Act; and encryption, which is not really covered by the likes of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. The centre's researchers will try to refine existing laws and propose new ones, helping to make legal cases less problematic and "fill in the gaps" that are present in existing legislation. Its other role will be to nurture home-grown talent.

Charlesworth says the centre, which is due to open its doors on 1 June, is unique in the UK as it is not part of a law school and it represents both the law and IT. "Cross-disciplinary study has not been the British way but, with the opening of this centre, those walls are starting to come down," he says. This will enable each side to learn from the other, says Charlesworth, adding that this synergy will be very attractive to the private sector.

The centre will also offer practical advice to law-makers. "One of the things we're trying to do is influence legislators and that will affect everyone," he says. "It's that mediation thing again. We're better placed to say to the legislator: 'these are the issues'."

However, he stresses that the centre does not want to become a lobbying group.

A key problem is that there are not enough lawyers trained in specialist IT areas such as intellectual property. "It's not that we need loads more lawyers but we need more specialist lawyers," says Charlesworth. "In time, IT law will specialise yet further. IT law is seen as a growth area and I think it will continue to grow."

The centre will concentrate on key areas such as privacy and encryption; Internet service provider liability - an area Charlesworth has done a lot of work in; and cybercrime, which he says will increasingly become headline news. Intellectual property and digital materials will also become important areas, he says.

"Bring IT law back home" is the other aim the centre hopes to achieve. Charlesworth says, "Fewer and fewer postgraduates in the UK are doing postgraduate work in these areas and this doesn't bode well for Britain or for British businesses."

The ultimate plan is to retain more students at postgraduate level by giving them more of an incentive, through funding. Charlesworth says a key problem with research into law in the UK is that it is expensive and funding is poor which squeezes the market. "There isn't enough research and development funding in the UK and what there is tends to be in the science departments," he says. "We lose people from academia in the UK because they can't afford to stay in it."

Charlesworth wants to create a natural progression for students on the Masters courses at Bristol University to doctorates at the university and on to funded research, retaining some of them to work full-time at the centre. "It's very much a case of building up a stream of trained IT law individuals in a more structured way than is happening now," he says. "It tends to be very haphazard at the moment."

As for the level of demand for the skills that the centre will promote and develop, "That's a 'how long is a piece of string' question," says Charlesworth. However, he believes that you only need to look at the number of jobs advertised relating to areas of science and IT law like biotechnology to see that there is a demand out there.

IT directors will be interested in the centre not just for the work it will do to fill in the gaps in existing legislation but from a recruitment perspective. The people it will turn out will not just be IT lawyers but IT professionals with a better grasp of IT law. "It's a two-way street," says Charlesworth. "I think it will be attractive in that it will reduce costs at the end of the day. If people become more legally literate you might save on lawyers' bills."

Recruiting such staff will mean companies developing IT and security strategies can identify which options won't work or which have strong legal implications in advance, he believes. "If you don't have someone like this you often find that tech people sit at one end of the table and lawyers at the other."

The centre has attracted sponsorship from Vodafone, Barclaycard, Hewlett-Packard, the Law Society Charitable Foundation and law firm Herbert Smith. For its part, Herbert Smith, which has a dedicated department for IT and e-business, takes on about 60 to 70 graduates a year and has very close links with Bristol University.

According to Mark Turner, an IT partner in Herbert Smith, when the company was approached by the university it was very enthusiastic. "It's a cross-disciplinary venture and that's what caught our eye," he says. By adopting a cross-disciplinary and cross-fertilisation approach, Turner hopes that the centre will help generate "a greater awareness of other people's backgrounds and what they can bring to the party".

Both the IT industry and the legal profession need answers to a number of emerging legislative and policy issues, says Turner, and by bringing together computer scientists, lawyers and electronic engineers under one roof, he believes the Bristol centre will have a positive impact.

Turner says IT- and e-business-related law is a fast-growing field and with IT and business changing so quickly it is very easy to get law initiatives wrong. "You need a thorough grounding in technology development and how it impacts on business and society in order to legislate sensibly," he says, adding that he wants the centre to take a long-term view and "step back from what's happening at the coalface".

The bottom line though is that Herbert Smith wants to see better legislation. "It's not clear how legislation fits together [in the UK]," he says.

One key area that the company wants to see changed is data privacy. Turner believes that data privacy legislation is imposing a considerable burden on UK business. The sponsors have identified four key areas of research that they want to see undertaken: privacy, digital rights management, cybercrime and assisting e-commerce.

Turner says he is looking forward to "stirring up the debate" in these areas but, like Charlesworth, he stresses that Herbert Smith does not want the centre to take up a lobbying role. "My expectation is that we're going to build this up as an effective, independent centre of expertise which, in time, government both in the UK and Europe will look to for regular input and expertise," he says.

Charlesworth shares this vision. He says over the next five years the centre aims to have five or six full-time researchers and 15-20 postgraduates. At the end of that period he expects to see the centre "being influential in higher education; consulted by legislature and select committees; and to be the kind of organisation selected to advise the European Council of Ministers".

As well as boosting the discipline and standard of IT law in the UK, Charlesworth says the centre will try to develop links with other countries - especially the US which, he says, is driving IT law at the moment.

Other key targets include the Far East and those countries currently looking at joining the European Union. "There's a large scope for us to play a role there in bringing them up to speed on areas such as intellectual property and copyright and this will be a good source of revenue," he says. "There's a lot of scope to do useful work as well as financially rewarding work."

As for the subject matter itself, Charlesworth foresees no major problems. "At the end of the day, most people would probably find learning law easier than learning to program," he says.

Background to the centre
The Centre for Law and IT is a cross-disciplinary venture between the faculties of law, science and engineering at Bristol University and is supported by an advisory group of international businesses and legal experts. The director of the centre Andrew Charlesworth is a senior research fellow at Bristol University and was previously director of the Information Law and Technology Unit at the University of Hull.
This was last published in May 2002

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