Law in the Information Society
Fifth International Conference of the Istituto per la Documentazione Giuridica (IDG) of the Italian National Research Council
We often see places, as Walter Benjamin describes in A Berlin Chronicle, through the lens of whatever activities or thoughts we happen to be engaged in at the time. Arriving in Florence for this conference I found myself wondering what Dante would have made of hypertext; how would the glossators have used the Internet? The conference literature made tentative analogies along these lines: the introduction of IT, it suggested, was an 'epic change similar to . the introduction of printing' in the fifteenth century. The comparison is not new, but it was good to be reminded of this larger picture when considering the three conference themes outlined above. The key difference between the later fifteenth and late twentieth centuries of course is that, with benefit of hindsight, we can appreciate the astonishing scale and complexity of that shift from manuscript to print culture. It took around two generations for that change to occur. We are measuring what may be similar shifts in decades; but like our fifteenth-century predecessors, we are in the midst of this historic change, and can see but through a screen, darkly.
The conference themes were ambitious: to 'define, as far as possible, a uniform framework of the issues . of interest to the legal world in recent years.' These included the structure and creation of new legal technological tools, the development of new legal categories, and the ways in which IT changed existing relationships, for example between law and public administration. The conference was spread over five days, but even this time span was not enough to allow for the quantity of papers generated by the conference call. There were no parallel sessions and (with the exception of the demonstrations and the sessions which consisted of presentations on specific applications) each session consisted of main speakers, with other papers included under the session in the conference CD. Each session concluded with questions - and sometimes extended comment - from the floor.
After the formal welcome in the splendours of the Palazzo Vecchio, the conference opened with a session on the organisation and transmission of legal information. Erich Schweighofer gave an overview of the recent revolution in legal information retrieval, focusing on the emerging integration of IR and AI systems, and the hybrid systems which embodied this integration. This theme was elaborated by Floretta Rolleri, who drew examples from Italian legal information systems. The afternoon session focused on the production and use of electronic legal documents in various legal fora - Pasquale Liccardi's presentation on the effectiveness of the POLIS system, in use in Appeal Courts in Bologna, for instance. Formalization of legal knowledge in one sense or another was an important issue for most of the speakers in this session.
The third session, entitled 'Telematics, Public Bodies and the Right to Information' addressed a variety of issues: interconnection of public data banks, database protection, and (Jerry Reichman) the commodification of data in the networked environment. This was one of the best-attended sessions, reflecting the concern in the conference generally regarding information privacy in cyberspace, and the potential impact of database protection laws, particularly on science and education
This session was followed by a series of presentations on interesting computer applications, amongst them the projects undertaken by the Institute for Legal Documentation (IDG), Marilyn MacCrimmon's web-based Evidence course, and IOLIS. The day concluded with a round table discussion of administrative innovation and participatory rights, which drew upon a wide range of local experience - public administrators, civil servants and journalists. This was my first experience of the synergy that exists between law and public administration in Italy. The presence of the public administrators in this session was clearly symptomatic of a different cultural view of this relationship than we have in our jurisdictions in the UK; while the range of informed comment from them on the issues raised by the previous session was impressive.
The final day was devoted to IT and legal education. Peter Martin gave us alternative views of the law school (as a consumer, as a marketing venue, and as a centre of research), introduced us to the first electronic law school in the States to have a URL but no campus, and warned that connectivity in electronic learning would involve us in changing existing patterns of teaching and human resource management if we did not want our role as teachers to be marginalised. Wolfgang Kilian reviewed the teaching of legal informatics in European universities, taking in the EULISP agreement (European Legal Informatics Study Programme). Abdul Paliwala surveyed the development and use of C&IT in legal education, taking into account in particular the impact of educational theory, resources issues, and globalisation. He began his wide-ranging review by asking us to imagine an imaginary future law student, Maria, who studies law in Zambia by signing up for a course run by MacMurdoch Global University. The course is almost entirely electronic, from registration through to graduation. It was a prospect both fascinating and fearful in its implications. All the papers in this session exemplified the difficulty inherent in the conference aims (i.e. to develop a 'uniform framework' of the relevant issues): the local cultural variables are different in each jurisdiction, the technology changes so fast, economic and historical movements such as globalisation are bewilderingly complex in their effects. By the end of the conference, though, such was the range and depth of the issues covered in the different sessions, that it was possible to make connections between the disparate sub-disciplines of law and IT, and to come to an appreciation of the forces underlying change and innovation, as well as of the innovations themselves.
The conference proceedings were published on a CD, available from the organisers at the web site. According to my rough estimate, there were over ninety papers accepted for inclusion, of which a proportion were chosen for presentation. It would have been useful to have had hardcopy versions of the papers during the conference, or at least of the papers' abstracts; but the advantage of the FolioViews version of the proceedings really became apparent when I was reading through the papers at home. The papers are indexed according to author, author's country, keyword and conference program, and of course there are extensive search facilities.
The social events were memorable - a chamber orchestra playing baroque music in the Chiesa di Orsanmichele, conference dinner and flute and guitar concert in the Villa di Maiano in Fiesole. But Florence itself provided much in the way of comparison with the themes of the conference. After the conference ended a few of us went to see the Laurentian Library, built for the Medici family by Michelangelo - a secular library, a concept very probably more revolutionary in its consequences than the Internet, and with a breathtaking beauty and grace. But being Sunday, it was closed: the Web has its advantages.
This is a Conference Report published on 26 February 1999.
Citation: Maharg P, 'Law in the Information Society', Conference Report, 1999 (1)The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/jilt/99-1/maharg.html>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/1999_1/maharg/>