The Circle of Virtuous Communication

At the end of the second day of the Berlin Conference on Technology, Innovation and Access to Justice, just before we went home, co-organiser Siddarth de Souza got us to play with the lego box. The task was to demonstrate something about the future of the discussion we had just had. This allows you to see my contribution, provisionally entitled ‘The Virtuous Cycle of Communication’, which attempts to demonstrate the way in which we should develop continuing global communication around the world, including the global south (the foot of the L) as well as the north. In deference to our hosts, this emanates from a lego representation of Berlin’s famous Fernsehturm or Television Tower – the one in Alexanderplatz. The centre location is less important than the idea, which is, of course, one of the reasons why the Legal Education Foundation has funded this blog.

The second day followed the first in bringing together a range of speakers from both the global south (the value, no doubt, of an Indian co-organiser) and north. In addition, the day was made the more interesting by a series of wider perspectives on access to justice than simply legal or advice services. Underlying them was a basic adherence to the wide definition of access to justice advocated by the UNDP: ‘Access to justice is … much more than improving an individual’s access to courts, or guaranteeing legal representation. It must be defined in terms of ensuring that legal and judicial outcomes are just and equitable.’

This wide approach was demonstrated in the opening presentation of the day from Dr Payal Arora of Rotterdam University. Her breadth of interest and approach can be seen from the titles of two of her three books – ‘Leisure Commons: Spatial History of Web 2.0’ and ‘Dot com mantra: Social Computing in the Himalayas’. Her next book is ‘The Next Billion Users’. So, this is a commentator interested in the broad development of the web, particularly in the global south. No punches pulled here on the lamentable actions of the British imperial administrations of India where colonial sedition laws, long removed in their country of origin, still exist alongside developments of social media. Also some interesting observations on how local conditions can eviscerate the liberation initially promised by the internet. Drug cartels in Brazil favelas demand access to otherwise private facebook accounts. The Chinese government is developing its web-based social credit programme. And the scariest thing for a western liberal is that this seems genuinely popular. The gender gap continues in developing countries with women in developing countries 25 per cent less likely to be online – 43 per cent in sub Saharan Africa. The net is also used as a weapon of gender repression with women finding that their pictures are photoshopped for extortion. 

Dr Arora’s suggested response called for a reframing of our approach that recognised the legacy of distrust and focused – at least in part – on what she called ‘creative insurgencies’. A good example of that was provided by the next speaker, Dr Christian Djeffal of Humboldt.  He talked, as did a number of speakers about the importance of the privacy regulations, GDPR, and mentioned Project Chommy as an example of creative insurgency. This is Reuters’ account of a campaign in which it has been deployed: ‘In what is seen as a test case, freedom of information activists are requesting masses of data from German personal credit rating agency SCHUFA in a bid to unearth the secret algorithm it uses to decide who is a bad risk  …The OpenSCHUFA campaign led by the Open Knowledge Foundation and Algorithm Watch has recruited more than 20,000 volunteers to ask SCHUFA for their personal data. A team of data scientists plans to reverse-engineer the results and publish its first findings next month … By getting thousands of people involved, it’s already a success,” said freedom of information activist Arne Semsrott, 30’. SCHUFA thinks it is a dangerous precedent and should be avoided.

Professor George Williams of the University of New South Wales put the discussion in the context of the rule of law. Governments are rebuilding their processes without reference to its principles. Automated decisions often do not incorporate review or appeal because their whole point is to be definitive. Discrimination can easily be built in to decision algorithms. That was the issue in the controversy and litigation around the COMPAS system in the US for predicting bail outcomes. What do you do if the algorithms are not disclosed or – if they are – they reveal features such as that divorce of parents before a chid reaches five years old is a predictor of that child’s future behaviour. The short term lesson is that some decisions must be made by a judge. For those in Europe, there may also be some help from the mandatory provisions o the European Convention on Human Rights. Professor Williams is willing to countenance the possibility that technology may over fifty years feed back to change our notions of the rule of law. The alternative view are its tenets are timeless and immutable: basic concepts developed to see off King John in medieval England represent eternal values. They are certainly going to be relevant in the discussion of how technology is introduced into the courts. 

And finally in this selection from the second day’s smorgasbord of insights came Astrid Wiik from the Max Planck Foundation. She gave a pretty depressing view of the attempt in Afghanistan to introduce justice systems recognisable to the foreign donors. Unsurprisingly in a failing state, the technology failed alongside the security. Formal courts are retreating to the urban areas from large areas of the countryside. Large parts of the population, particularly women, are being excluded from justice. Women may, in fact, know their rights – but they may also recognise that their enforcement is impossible. She had a conclusion of general relevance. Innovation too often means digitalisation of what has previously been written down – not making it better. And digitalisation can make things worse by imposing further barriers of digital access and capacity. Too much study in Afghanistan missed excluded groups. Well you could say the same the world over.

And that is the value of this kind of wide-reaching discussion. There are links between experiences around the world in very different contexts. And we need more reaching out like this conference to identify them.

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