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Alex Heshmaty

Alex Heshmaty is a legal copywriter and journalist with a particular interest in legal technology. He runs Legal Words, a legal copywriting agency based in Bristol.

Back in 2006, Sheffield mathematician Clive Humby declared “data is the new oil” after reaping the benefits of helping to set up a supermarket loyalty card scheme. This was the same year that Facebook went mainstream, accelerating the pace of data harvesting and spawning an entire industry devoted to the collection, analysis and monetisation of large sets of personal data. Although many concerns were raised over the following years regarding the potential dangers of the big data revolution which ensued, arguably it wasn’t until the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke in 2018 that the public – and their parliamentary representatives – began to grasp the true gravity of the situation.

Governments around the world have grappled with the challenge of sufficiently taxing international companies – particularly peripatetic tech giants – which aggressively pursue policies of (perfectly legal) tax avoidance. One of the main reasons that so many Silicon Valley icons decide to base their European operations in Dublin (including Google and Apple) is due to the low rate of corporation tax in Ireland (compared to most other EU countries) – and the ability to further minimise their taxes by taking advantage of tricks such as profit shifting. The G7 have been discussing the best way to implement a fair method of international taxation – but, in the meantime, France has decided to go ahead and impose its own levy, to the consternation of the US.

In the wake of growing data protection concerns around the turn of the century, a framework dubbed “Safe Harbor” was agreed between the EU and the US in 2000, which essentially permitted transatlantic free-flow of personal data.

Towards the end of 2015, as a result of one of several legal challenges brought by prolific Austrian privacy campaigner Max Schrems, the European Court of Justice declared the Safe Harbor framework invalid on the grounds that it did not provide adequate safeguards for personal data.

One of the key changes brought about by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into force on 25 May 2018, was a substantial increase in the maximum fines available for data protection breaches, to the higher of €20 million or 4% of global annual turnover. Any breaches which occurred prior to this date were subject to a maximum of £500,000 set by the Data Protection Act 1998 – and this former upper limit was only invoked once, in the case of Facebook and its part in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Many commentators pointed out that half a million pounds was “chump change” for the likes of tech giants. The same couldn’t be said of the £183 million fine which the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) levied on British Airways (BA) less than a year later.

Information overload is defined by Wikipedia as “the difficulty in understanding an issue and effectively making decisions when one has too much information about that issue” – although, ironically, it offers alternative definitions based on multiple sources!

Airbnb has been a phenomenal success since it was launched just over a decade ago, arguably creating more choice for travellers seeking accommodation while providing a user friendly platform which allows homeowners to rent out a spare room easily. However, it has also faced mounting criticism from various quarters: city officials claim that investors snap up rental properties to add to their Airbnb portfolio, making it more difficult for local residents to find homes to rent; neighbours often complain that Airbnb properties are continuously let out to noisy tourists in residential areas; and hoteliers and regulators argue that Airbnb simply offers a way for unscrupulous businesses to act as hotels whilst avoiding the overheads or regulation.

Internet regulation has been very much in the public eye lately, particularly following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the government recently published its Online Harms White Paper which seeks to address some of the concerns surrounding the ‘Wild West Web’. One of the key issues regularly raised is the protection of children from exposure to online pornography.

The debate around workplace monitoring of employees has rumbled on for many years now; employers argue that they are entitled to analyse how their staff spend their working day whilst employees claim it impacts upon their privacy. In 2017 the European Court of Human Rights held, in the case of Bărbulescu v Romania, that the actions of an employer in monitoring the instant messaging accounts of an employee breached Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. But this hasn’t dissuaded some businesses from moving to ever more extreme forms of surveillance; microchipping has already happened in the UK and Amazon has filed patent applications on a warehouse productivity bracelet.

The Government published its Online Harms White Paper on 8 April 2019. The consultation, which is open until 1 July 2019, sets out proposals to reduce illegal and harmful online activity. The harms in scope include:

  • harassment and cyberbullying;
  • hate crime and incitement of violence;
  • terrorism, extremist and violent content;
  • revenge/extreme porn, child sexual exploitation and “sexting” by under-18s;
  • organised immigration crime and modern slavery;
  • encouraging or assisting suicide, self-harm and FGM;
  • coercive behaviour and intimidation;
  • sale of illegal goods (weapons, illegal drugs etc) and illegal uploading of content from prisons;
  • disinformation (fake news); and
  • underage exposure to pornography (this is separately being tackled by the heavily delayed age check scheme, now due to come into force on 15 July 2019).

A recent major IT failure on the Ministry of Justice network, which reportedly led to the disruption of thousands of cases, highlighted how reliant courts already are upon technology. Commenting in the wake of the fallout, Richard Atkins QC, the chair of the Bar Council, noted that “it illustrates how vulnerable the delivery of justice is with reliance on weak IT systems in our courts.” Although HM Courts & Tribunal Service (HMCTS) has big plans for online justice beyond the physical courtroom, it is worth first considering the various technologies currently being used by the courts.

Twitter is the social media platform of choice for journalists, free speech campaigners, Russian trolls and American presidents. On the social media spectrum of formality, it sits somewhere in between professional networking colossus LinkedIn and lolcat empire Facebook.

Twitter is essentially a “social” messaging service which enables you to maintain a minimalist profile, broadcast short “tweets” to your followers and view and respond to tweets of those you choose to follow, which are displayed in your “timeline”. It’s deceptively simple but at the same time somewhat of an enigma.

There are important differences that distinguish Twitter from Facebook and LinkedIn and give it its distinctive “personality”.

LinkedIn, acquired by Microsoft in 2016, has over 250 million active monthly users and, according to research from Attorney at Work, it is the most popular social media channel in the US legal sector, used by over 90 per cent of lawyers and forming part of the overall marketing strategy in around 70 per cent of firms. It is likely that these statistics broadly translate to the UK. LinkedIn’s popularity has increased within legal circles over recent years, with Brian Inkster, founder of Inksters citing its better rates of engagement: “I used to think LinkedIn was deadly boring compared to Twitter (which was my social media channel of choice). However, over the past year or two my views have changed. If I post a similar item on LinkedIn and Twitter it invariably gets more interaction and usually much more detailed comments on LinkedIn than on Twitter.”