Sleeping with Google: what might that mean?

The phrase ‘Let’s sleep with Google’ – as reported in a recent interview with John Mayer – has a certain resonance. There seems value in exploring what insights it might offer. And that depends on its meaning or, better, meanings – of which there might be a number.

‘Sleeping with Google’ in this context might first be considered  close to its origin. The US Legal Services Corporation has set an objective of establishing statewide ‘triage’ websites which will calculate legal aid eligibility; provide some level of intake for those who qualify; refer to other providers those who do not; and, potentially, offer a degree of assistance to those who wish – or have – to act for themselves through the provision of information and document self-assembly programmes. A prime example would be Illinois Legal Aid Online. Google may not currently be involved in this kind of site but Microsoft is. It is partnering with the US Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and Pro Bono Net to create statewide legal access portals in Alaska and Hawaii. ‘These portals,’ reported the LSC, ‘will use cutting-edge, user-centered technology to help ensure that all people with civil legal needs can navigate their options and more easily access solutions and services available from legal aid, the courts, the private bar, and community partners’. The Alaska Legal Services Corporation, proclaiming itself as providing ‘access to justice in the last frontier’, is said to be ahead of Hawaii in developing the project.

Thus, here, ‘sleeping with Google’ would presumably have a specific meaning. The idea would presumably be that Google – or maybe one of the big four privatised data harvesters: Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon (GAFA) – would pay for clean data on legal service providers to an extent which would offset the cost of the provision of information and self-help. That would make a tempting proposition and a potential win-win bargain.  But it invites some discussion of the ethics of the GAFA harvesters. Veterans of the successful battle in the UK, won by an alliance of left and right libertarians, against Tony Blair’s plans for a state-run national identity database may find a certain irony in the way that these four American companies are keeping more information on us all – wherever in the world we may be – than ever Mr Blair, at the height of his hubris, contemplated.

GAFA critics might also pray in aid of their concern moves like the downgrading of Google’s onetime command to its employees: ‘Don’t be Evil’ to new owner Alphabet’s injunction that those under its control should ‘do the right thing — follow the law, act honorably, and treat each other with respect.’ You don’t need to be a picky lawyer to find an ethics downgrade in the new phrases. And, there is a slow-growing backlash against the Big Four’s power around the world, headed by concern at Facebook’s unintended role in the potential subversion of democracy. How much do we want to asssist one – or all – of the GAFA harvesters to control our sources of information? Presumably, Microsoft’s assistance to the Legal Services Corporation has also an element of enlightened self-interest in seeing how a triage site might be monetised.

In the UK, the circumstances are different. The Legal Aid Agency has given up the role taken by its predecessors as any kind of leader in the sector. It is content to be simply an administrative agency. So, the triage function is split differently. Citizens Advice and AdviceNow are national information providers rather than referral operations. Various different networks have good information on their members:  the Law Society can give you list of solicitors; the Law Centres Network can tell you about law centres. Lasa, funded by a couple of foundations,, has a national searchable database of advice agencies: advicelocal. But worthwhile clean data on what services are available and when is hard to keep up – particularly as you get to the smaller and more local agencies. So, it is not clear that an arrangement with Google (or another GAFA harvester) would provide monetisable services where the provision of information and assistance could be subsidised by referrals.

‘Sleeping with Google’ could have another, rather different, meaning. It could refer to using an established major provider of a service rather than building your own. That is something where the balance of advantage might vary according to the circumstances. Accept for a moment that we need to move away from the provision of static information on the internet – like most existing advice sites – to something more dynamic which tailors assistance to the user’s particular circumstances. This was the promise, on the one hand, of the Rechtwijzer and lives on its successor (for the time being in Dutch) or or, on the other, document self-assembly programmes like A2J author.. Suppose, however, that we jump forward to the Alexa and Siri age. Aided by artificial intelligence, it would be possible to move – via what might be termed sophisticated chatbots – to information provision via the major voice activated products. So, Alexa, for example, would tease the relevant information out of you and then give you information and, potentially, referral.

In his interview, John Mayer suggests that tis is exactly what might be the next move for A2J Author. Rather than sprucing up ageing visuals, let’s jump ahead to the next generation of conversation interfaces, possibly turbo-charged by artificial intelligence, with the digital world. Australian Kate Fazio made much the same point at the recent LSC conference. But, the two approaches may not be that incompatible. First, guided interviews may be a good halfway house before more sophisticated approaches come on stream. After all, AI leader IBM Watson, for all its hype, was incapable of providing an adequate service for the Australian Nadia project which intended to use it as a virtual call centre on a new disability system. And it got dumped. Second, an AI programme may use all sorts of wonderful and unfathomable mathematical algorithms but it is still going to have to be programmed and checked by someone who actually understands the application of relevant facts and law. Third, at the current time, AI is not only inadequate in this area, it is expensive. And there is much that we can do with interactivity, personalisation and guided interviews which will be quicker to implement and still, potentially, capable of providing major advances – not least in changing the mindset of service providers that the net can be a first line of provision. So – in the language of lawyers – the use of guided interviews can surely be developed without prejudice to the future use of AI and conversation computer interfaces.

Finally, there is another wider and related meaning which ‘sleeping with Google’ might suggest. That would be that it is better, particularly if you have a limited budget, to wait for a product from a major provider rather than seek to custom build from scratch. Again, this will depend on the circumstances but it would represent approach rejected by the rush for an online court in England and Wales. Her Majesty’s Court and Tribunal Service would not wait to see what happened in other jurisdictions like British Columbia. The growing row on the expense of private consultants may be part of the result. The Ministry of Justice is apparently paying £30m to PriceWaterHouseCoopers and large sums are also going to EY, Accenture and other private consultants. Luckily, nothing seems to have gone to once-mega outsource provider and builder, Carillion, which has gone into liquidation after drinking deeply at the public trough: it doesn’t seem even to have met its pension obligations. In practice, the MoJ expenditure will be hidden from all but the eagle-eyed because it will not show up as a loss in the accounts. The wheeze is to meet the costs from court sales – which are already in train. But, this is surely a risky strategy which might have been more cheaply undertaken in a year or so. We would then know the lessons of other jurisdictions, like British Columbia, which are leading the field. Of course, everyone cannot be a prudent follower, but generally there seems no problem in finding bold early adopters. England and Wales was only too eager to step in.

It is difficult not to end with some word play. ‘Sleeping with Google’ seems a remarkably fertile phrase, pregnant with meaning and which goes to the heart of how technology in the service of access to justice should be developed. If you want to explore more, do write in.

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