That was the Month that Was: February 2020

Did you catch the most important stories on access to justice and technology last month? Here is a list to help.

2 February

Lawyer John Tobin fights back on allegations that lawyers are hostile to legal technology. Opposition arises ‘“Because most of it sucks,” is all I could say. I might have even embellished it with an f-bomb.’

3 February 

Justice through Law lists five organisations around the world actively pursuing strategies of legal empowerment.

UK House of Lords publishes briefing on predictive and decision-making algorithms in public policy.

Discussion on TechTalks of Google’s Meena, ‘a chatbot that can “chat about… anything.”’ This is yet to be publicly released. ‘ZDNet’s Tiernan Ray also makes an interesting observation on Meena’s conversations:  “Meena is recreating a distribution of language that is startlingly accurate, but also merely a recreation of information, which is boring.’

4 February

Google ad revenue for YouTube revealed for first time at $15bn.

Tortoise publishes article on drones as the ‘Kalashnikovs of tomorrow’.

Praise for the Justice First Fellowship funding scheme of the Legal Education Foundation (funder of this blog).

NBC News reports that ‘The California Consumer Privacy Act, which took effect Jan. 1, gives people the right to know what large companies know about them and the right to block the sale of that information to others. In effect, it created a market for privacy expertise and software.’ Ah, the wonders of capitalism.

5 February

Starbucks sued for allegedly shortchanging Venti drinkers on caffeine. ‘While the grande-sized drinks have more caffeine than the smaller tall-sized drinks, many venti-sized espresso beverages don’t contain more espresso, [the plaintiff] alleges. They are equal in caffeine content to their cheaper, grande-sized equivalents, according to the suit.’ [OK. Low technology content but highly relevant if you think that the best thing about Starbucks is the free wifi.]

7 February

YouTube video (only 1 minute 15 seconds) on the ‘brave new world’ of Chinese digital courts, as promoted by its government (which may be rather ill educated in the writings of Aldous Huxley from which its title is taken). ‘Artificial-intelligence judges, cyber-courts, and verdicts delivered on chat apps – China is encouraging digitization to streamline case-handling within its sprawling court system using cyberspace and technologies like blockchain and cloud computing.’.

Facebook sends ‘cease and desist letters’ to Clearview AI which is scraping photo identification from its pages  (see more below).

Glow, recipient of a NESTA Legal Challenge award, to join Pinsent Mason accelerator programme. Glow could stand for the Netflix series Glorious Ladies of Wrestling but in this case is the organisation which ‘aims to redress the balance of power between organisations and individuals, by simplifying the litigation process and enabling victims to unite and be a powerful force. The platform will also give solicitors the tools they need to effectively manage cases and hold those at fault to account.’ It pulls together class action litigants.

8 February

British Columbia’s Civil Resolution Tribunal to take over motor vehicle injury disputes from 1 May. ‘With rare exceptions, all motor vehicle personal injury disputes involving accidents after May 1, 2021 will be resolved by the CRT, not the courts. The focus will be on a person’s injuries and their entitlement to benefits to help them recover from an accident, instead of who was responsible for the accident.’

9 February

Browser-developer Mozilla carries on its campaign for more respect for privacy on the net and pushes its browser, Firefox, that blocks trackers. Mozilla advances its pledge for a healthy internet: ‘We are committed to an internet that includes all the peoples of the earth — where a person’s demographic characteristics do not determine their online access, opportunities, or quality of experience. We are committed to an internet that promotes civil discourse, human dignity, and individual expression. We are committed to an internet that elevates critical thinking, reasoned argument, shared knowledge, and verifiable facts. We are committed to an internet that catalyzes collaboration among diverse communities working together for the common good.’

10 February

In an updated article, the New York Times reported that Hoan Ton-That had, through his company Clearview AI, ‘devised a groundbreaking facial recognition app. You take a picture of a person, upload it and get to see public photos of that person, along with links to where those photos appeared. The system — whose backbone is a database of more than three billion images that Clearview claims to have scraped from Facebook, YouTube, Venmo and millions of other websites — goes far beyond anything ever constructed by the United States government or Silicon Valley giants.’ See above and below.

12 February

Joshua Browder, founder of DoNotPay, takes advantage of US laws allowing victims to sue automated telephone callers. A chatbot will ease the way to take automated proceedings and claim compensation.

Ofcom will be put in charge of regulating the internet, the government has announced, with executives at internet firms potentially facing substantial fines or even prison sentences if they fail to protect users from “harmful and illegal content” online,’ reports The Guardian.

13 February

‘Sex trafficking in a US city was significantly disrupted by a non-profit group that deployed decoy chatbots in conversations with tens of thousands of men,’ reports Guardian. ‘Seattle Against Slavery won a Google ad grant, which allowed it to place free targeted adverts that would appear as sponsored links in response to common search terms such as “escort sex tonight”.’

14 February

Pew Trusts promotes ‘A team at the Legal Innovation and Technology (LIT) Lab at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, with funding from The Pew Charitable Trusts, [which] is building an application programming interface, or API—known as Spot—that can serve as a computerized issue spotter. Spot could be used by legal services websites and others to help lay users, and its functionality will improve as it accumulates more data and real-life examples.’ The team is led by David Colarossu.

16 February

‘Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems that companies claim can “read” facial expressions is based on outdated science and risks being unreliable and discriminatory, one of the world’s leading experts on the psychology of emotion has warned,’ reports Guardian.

19 February 

American Bar Association publishes ‘The Simple Guide to Legal Innovation’. This is available as a paperback for $34.95 to non-members but not apparently as an e-book.

European Commission publishes a white paper on artificial intelligence: ‘A European approach to excellence and trust’.

20 February

UK Civil Justice Council proposes better assistance for vulnerable witnesses and other parties in civil courts. This contains a section, beginning on p99, on the digital reform programme which rehearses the various official criticisms eg from the National Audit Office. The Council recommended that ‘with each and every element of the proposed reforms the question should be asked; how will this affect vulnerable court users? It should be an automatic agenda item … When a proposed reform may directly or indirectly affect vulnerable parties or witnesses, an impact assessment should be undertaken and steps taken to address the potential to adversely affect the ability of vulnerable court users to participate or give best evidence.’The Council believes that whether online or on paper, all claims forms or forms commencing pro- ceedings, acknowledgments of service or responses to claims, the questionnaires for all tracks and all requests should be amended to obtain (through straightforward and easily understandable questions) information as to the vulnerability or potential vulnerability of a party (which should in- clude an obligation to disclose whether a party know details of the vulnerability of another party) or a witness.’

20 February

Don Bivans, a Phoenix lawyer, gives first interview with the ABA Journal after becoming chair of the ABA Center for Innovation. He intends to lead the centre top the ranging debate on possible regulatory change – a regrettably domestic obsession. But he also wants to see ‘the ABA and the Center for Innovation continue to support technological innovations that help lawyers become more efficient.’ This will have more international impact.

21 February

Legal Futures reports that ‘A pilot of fully video hearings in the [UK] civil courts is to be extended and turned from opt-in to opt-out, the Civil Procedure Rule Committee (CPRC) has decided. The one-year pilot for applications to set aside default judgments in Manchester and Birmingham has “essentially been successful”, the committee was told, but volumes have been low and further testing was required. Making it opt-out would “enable a more meaningful volume of hearings” to be analysed as part of the pilot’s independent evaluation.’

Guardian reports a study suggesting to be published by Brown University that a quarter of all tweets about climate change are produced by automated bots. Twitter ‘disputed the accuracy of the Brown University research. “Non-peer reviewed research using our public API can often be deeply flawed,” the spokesperson said, adding that “sweeping assessments” of users based on signals such as location and tweet content are routinely made by outside groups.

24 February 

UK Royal United Society Institute for Defence publishes ‘Big Data and Policing: an assessment of law enforcement requirements, expectations and priorities on AI. This has all the credibility of coming from an institution so much into the ‘deep state’ that it has its own wikispooks entry.

26 February

Clearview AI’s problems (see above) increase. CNN Business reported ‘Clearview AI, a startup that compiles billions of photos for facial recognition technology, said it lost its entire client list to hackers.’ From this report, it seems that Twitter and Google have also sent ‘cease and desist’ letters and ‘Some states, such as New Jersey, even enacted a statewide ban on law enforcement agencies using Clearview while it investigates the software.’

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