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Current Law on Trial

Law on trial 2019: Communication technologies on trial

The theme of this year's Law on Trial week was Communication Technologies on Trial.  

Through a series of focused debates, speakers investigated the implications of the fact that communications technology, which is often used as though it were a public good, is privately owned and that the major actors and platforms that connect the infrastructure to the users are also transnational corporate interests. In particular, the week's events focused on the ways that the architecture of the communications technology system poses serious challenges to legal regulation, while the dominance of neo-liberal thought arguably creates political resistance to regulatory solutions.

Communication Technologies on Trial investigated these issues through a range of presentations, panel discussions and public debates that focused on the sub-themes of democracy, social and financial exclusion, cultural production, work and the environment, and security, privacy and surveillance. It was jointly organized with the Velux funded digital humanities project "The Past's Future", which is based at the Saxo Institute and the School of Law at the University of Copenhagen.

When and where?

Monday 10 June Democracy (watch here)

We started the week on Monday 10 June with an enquiry into the state of democratic processes and their viability in a world where the borders that mark the limits of national democratic regulation are increasingly porous, where fake news and misinformation is everywhere, where private interests seek to profit from influencing public opinion, and where digital manipulation or exclusion might also amount to the denial of democratic rights.

Tuesday 11 June Social and Financial Exclusion (watch here)

The second evening of Law on Trial, focused directly on the impact of digital exclusion on social rights and participation in the financial system. The spotlight was on the role played by algorithms in controlling access to things like social security, appropriate health care, educational opportunities and mortgages. Our panel reflected on the costs and benefits of a world controlled by algorithms.

Wednesday 12 June Cultural Production (watch here)

On Wednesday 12 June, our panel of experts considered the impact of communication technologies on cultural production, reflecting for example on the significance of algorithms that police potential copyright infringements online. The benefits of communication technologies in giving wide access to cultural products and in preserving fragile cultural heritage were weighed up against the dangers of a global monoculture controlled by private interests. The capacity of law to create and protect a global communications commons was interrogated.

Thursday 13 June Work and the Environment (watch here)

On Thursday 13 June, we focused on the impact of communication technologies on two spheres of central social importance, work and the environment.  Both the protection of labour rights and the protection of the environment have grown out of long and hard fought battles. Are particular uses of communication technologies undermining those rights? Or creating new theatres of conflict?  What happens if your working life is controlled by an algorithm?  Is it really true that the turn to communication technologies has benefitted the environment? By thinking of communication technologies as virtual, how much do we under-estimate the human and environmental costs of manufacturing and using the hardware essential to accessing this virtual world?

Friday 14 June Privacy, Security and Surveillance (watch here)

On Friday 14 June, we turned to a set of critical questions around privacy, security and surveillance. Is Super Sibling really watching us? Why? What does s/he want to know? Is it for our own good? Who is s/he anyway? All these are questions about the exercise and control of power that have always demanded responses in a democratic society. Does the legal system need to give different answers to them in the digital age?

What is Law on Trial?

Established in 2010, Law on Trial is Birkbeck's annual showcase of free lectures, discussion panels and workshops, featuring leading academics, practitioners, activists and leaders from civil society. 

Each year we explore a different theme: we want to stimulate a burst of critical legal thinking and interaction between our speakers and our audience that will reverberate long after the week has ended. 

Each year's theme reflects an area of research strength in the School of Law and past events illustrate our diverse research interests, with topics including scientific evidence and experts in courts, social justice and inclusion, religion and the law, and the European Union.