BILETA 2008 : The Digital Environment

Burkhard Schafer (Edinburgh) started by shooting the Chair.

He then went on to discuss evidence and hearsay and computer-generated speech; how relevant is the hearsay rule when you have lots of information ‘spoken’ (aural or visual) by a computer. This works for something as simple as the ‘time’ of a particular event; if the computer ‘tells’ you the time is that hearsay? With ‘helpful’ suggestions from a computer (think of something like predictive text), the grey areas are significant. Is a bot sent to interact in a chatroom an electronic document or hearsay-speech? What about the call centre and the mix between preformulated stuff and the human operator? Should we just abolish the distinction? (He says no, but we have to work on the definitions)

This is about the fourth time I’ve heard Burkhard speak at conferences and again, I came away with questions that will annoy me for a while! Which I suppose is a good thing :-)

Next up was Primavera de Fillipi (also part of the EUI contingent), talking about user-generated content and democratic participation. Again this is something that comes into my current research interests, so I was on the lookout for ideas here. The theoretical background was Habermas on the public sphere (Offentlichkeit) which was related to ‘e-democracy’ and the participative web; the “electronic Agora”, a lovely image. The challenges, though, include scarcity of Internet access in some countries, the need to develop appropriate technical skills, the power of intellectual property law (particular when it comes to parody or transformative works), and censorship/filtering. A freewheeling discussion followed about Wikipedia, blogging and the “geekery” of the Internet.

Finally, Judith Rauhofer (Central Lancashire) talked about data protection (which is now ‘sexy’ and ‘the new black’, apparently!). She argued that it necessary to return to first principles, and discussed the concept and defintions of privacy, including personality rights in the German constitutional context, compared with US concepts of the ‘public interest’, and the various legal protections of privacy in domestic and international law. Data protection has developed (in a way) as an expression of the idea of privacy. Interestingly, the international interventions under this heading can be seen as a ‘backlash’, as some states were effectively creating ‘data havens’ by regulating within a domestic sphere only, and international standards can be either a ‘race to the top’ or a ‘race to the bottom’. Additionally, individuals ‘trade’ their data : loyalty cards or travel cards (Oyster) are great examples. Judith explored the reason for privacy protection, focusing on social reasons rather than purely individual ones; this tradition can be traced to the famous German ‘Census Act Case’ in 1983. “If one individual or group of individuals waives privacy rights, the level of privacy for all individuals decreases”. Her suggestion was the use of regulation to force the use of code, which prompted a good set of questions and comments.