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Academic profile: Julia Hornle, Professor of Internet Law

14 May 2015

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Julia Hörnle joined Queen Mary University of London in 2000 as Professor of Internet Law. She focuses on internet regulation, online consumer protection, jurisdiction and online dispute resolution. She teaches on the London LLM and is the Director of Taught Programmes at the Centre for Commercial Law Studies (CCLS) in the School of Law.

Internet law must be a fascinating field – tell us a bit about it.

It is indeed and it is fast developing. Many of the main players in the digital world are not yet two decades old (for example Google was only founded in 1998, Facebook in 2004), but are so incredibly powerful in terms of both their economic and political power. While no single entity controls the internet, there are a small number of extremely powerful players in the digital media space who have achieved power through network effects, ie the more people join the network, the more useful if becomes. Law is ultimately about rebalancing power (among other things).

The digital revolution has fundamentally shifted power and raises serious questions about the changes in fundamental legal norms – is privacy still a fundamental right in this new digital age? –and the enforceability of the law. Since the internet is global and cloud computing means data is stored anywhere and nowhere discernible, this immediately raises the question of which, if any, country governs our online activities.

Most of us use the technology without thinking about the law. We disclose enormous amounts of highly personal data, download ‘free’ apps, and never read the terms and conditions, which would tell us that they can exploit our personal data by selling it to brokers who profile us. We do this because it is convenient, and because the pay-back comes later. For example, we may not even be aware that an insurance policy or loan is offered to us on less favourable terms because of this profile.

As a result, companies know everything about us. If you look at their current advertising, Facebook wants us to believe that they have invented friendship. But the truth is, it is all about gathering huge amounts of data and then commercialising and monetising that data in a variety of ways which the individual cannot control. These risks are latent and not yet fully understood. And as we all know after the Snowdon revelations, governments are also tapping into this treasure trove of vast amounts of information.

On the other hand, some people say that the vast amounts of information, the ‘big data’ gathered by search engines and aggregated profiles, could give us unprecedented insights, for example helping us to predict the spread of an epidemic or teaching us how to use energy resources more efficiently. To weigh up the efficiency gains versus the privacy risks is a complicated assessment and the discussion is, in some ways, reminiscent of the discussion on climate change: you either believe in the seriousness of the risks or you do not.

My interest in this debate is how the internet and associated technologies are changing the law and changing government’s ability to enforce the law. Law here is not merely about transactional efficiency, but also protecting fundamental legal values, such as human rights and legal security, and about containing illegal activities.

Do you have a Facebook profile?

I do; it’s a necessity for teaching and researching the subject of internet law! I am reticent about disclosing too much information (as you probably would have guessed), but I do enjoy some of the materials that go viral (being funny or clever or both).

Does the internet wipe out international boundaries?

Most laws are still enacted by nation states, or at best regional institutions such as the EU, and are therefore by definition national instruments of regulating behaviour and interactions between people. The internet of course does not recognise borders, as digitised material crosses borders and therefore the internet revolution has made it really difficult for national laws to govern online activities. Furthermore, those who are determined can hide their tracks and hide behind international boundaries.

How does the law keep up with the speed at which things change?

It does keep up, in that it is relatively easy to enact new laws. In fact, in England, we have more than enough laws to govern the internet and the digital space. What is more interesting is how and whether these laws can be enforced when your jurisdiction ends at your country’s borders. For example, in relation to the new and sad phenomenon of ‘revenge porn’ [the spreading of intimate, sexual photos on the internet without the consent of the person in the photo], the UK Parliament has acted swiftly and recently enacted specific laws to criminalise this behaviour. Practically more relevant may be the question whether the social media company hosting the pictures is prepared to take them down before they have spread.

There’s a project at the Legal Advice Centre called SPITE, which runs advice sessions for victims of revenge porn. There will be training sessions for the students about the legal issues surrounding revenge porn. The law is catching up, and we hope it will create a deterrent.

One of my students is from Bangladesh, and was saying how difficult it is for developing countries to keep up with regulating all aspects of the digital space in view of the fast-paced development of technology. He is studying the subject of online dispute resolution in Europe to see if this works as a model for Bangladesh. This type of comparison between the laws of different regions in view of the same global technology is very interesting.

Cybercrime must form an enormous part of your work…

Indeed, and it moves at an incredible pace. Cybercrime is difficult to quantify. More research needs to be done to understand what sort of cybercrimes are being committed as these crimes are very under-reported. Companies have no interest in publicising that their security has been breached, so they mostly deal with it from a risk management and cyber security point of view rather than a criminal one.

Cybercrime is one of the main challenges of policing in the 21st century. The criminals may not be in the country and they use the latest technology to hide their tracks, which makes cybercrime very resource-intensive to investigate. The traditional instruments we have do not fit the modern world anymore.

So what does the student body look like?

The student body at Centre for Commercial Law Studies is very international. I think it might be true to say for my courses that no two students come from the same country. They all have a first degree, obviously, as it’s a postgraduate course, but many of them have experience of practising law for quite a few years in their own countries. So they all have different perspective on the issues and the law. This international mix is great for the students, because they network with people from all over the world and these professional links are often for life. So if in the future they need foreign legal advice, they will remember their friend from the LLM. We are laying the foundations for international legal co-operation here!

What do you like most about your work?

There is a very dynamic spirit at CCLS and good teamwork and innovative approaches to teaching and research. For example, we started a distance learning programme 13 years ago – one of the first departments to do it. We developed the technology and skills together. Everyone in CCLS was engaged, and everyone contributed.

And what do you do in your spare time?

Being in London is a great privilege, of course. I love the theatre and swimming in London’s pools.


Computer and Communications Law courses at Queen Mary University of London

 

 

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