Review Compilation

October 18, 2016

The Online Court: Will IT Work?

Despite the title, Joshua Rozenberg has not really written this paper about ‘The Online Court’ (an entity that does not exist and which is vaguely defined even as a concept). There is a clue in his capitalisation of ‘IT’; this is really a paper about the whole range of IT-related projects affecting the justice system, with a special focus on the highly topical recent proposals for a new court which is likely to be called the Online Solutions Court (though I’d prefer ‘CourtSolve’).

Whatever the accuracy of title, let me quickly say that what is here is great stuff – perceptive, rounded and rather frighteningly comprehensive (there were a number of projects mentioned that were new to me – and I am supposed to know about these things). The biggest plus for me was the neat balance between the insights into the politics of the justice system and the consideration of the practicalities of implementation of IT. Joshua Rozenberg has a reputation as a peerless commentator on judicial politics and so the only element of surprise is the amount of attention devoted to the technicalities. This is no guide to app design but there is a clear description of the way in which an online court can operate. If you are struggling with the concepts or just want to increase your understanding, this paper is a very worthwhile buy.

But if you are looking for material to reinforce your prejudice against tech solutions, you will not find it here. If you want tales of government IT disasters, you will not find that here. Although Joshua Rozenberg acknowledges the existence of some IT projects in the justice system that ended in disaster (and that might have been a small book on its own), he is clearly sold on the benefits of the online court and the application of IT solutions to improving the justice system; I don’t have a problem with that view but I do think the natural cynicism that arises from past failures deserved to be addressed more fully.

The paper is self-published and available only for Kindle. It costs £1.99. It would have been nice if it was also available as an epub but I accept the Kindle dominance even though I don’t like it. The author aims to update as developments continue and purchasers will have access to the updated version. That is laudable as, in this fast-changing area, new purchasers will get the benefit of revised text (though I shall not be reading it again so the updates will pass me by). 

Celebrity and Royal Privacy, the Media and the Law 

This book from Professor Robin Callender Smith (published by Sweet & Maxwell in December 2015: ISBN:  9780414050877, £175, 563 pp) is a beautifully written and wide-ranging work which principally examines the privacy regimes that are used by celebrities (212 pp). The provisions which affect the monarch and the royal family, which are dealt with in part 3 (70 pp), are likely to be of minority interest in practice (but are actually quite fun).

The book begins appropriately by considering the key concepts: celebrity, privacy and proportionality. The short but thought-provoking analysis of ‘celebrity’ and its varying nature sets the tone – an academic approach laced with real world stories and sly wit. I approached this book with the expectation that only the material on data protection would really be of interest to SCL members but the truth is that the ‘remedies’ that might be sought by a celebrity to protect his or her privacy have to be seen in the round. The interplay between, say, breach of confidence and defamation becomes clear. (I found the reviewer’s traditional sleight of hand – reading just a snippet – too tricky for me to pull off convincingly.)

Chapters 2 to 7 cover breach of confidence, misuse of private information, copyright and image rights, protection from harassment, data protection and defamation. Chapter 8’s conclusions on the celebrity and privacy arena include the intriguing suggestion that the Information Commissioner might take a more proactive role in using monetary penalties to curb the media’s misuse of data and a leap from Prince Harry’s pool-playing partying to Shakespeare’s Henry V.

I am not sure that it reflects well on me that what makes me think this is as readable a law book as you can imagine is the way in which Professor Callender Smith balances the celebrity detail (published tasty tittle tattle, albeit sometimes emanating from HM judges) with legal analysis. There are recurring flashes of recognition which flavour one’s reading and drives one on.

I suppose the depth that has been brought to the work should be no surprise. Once a journalist, the author worked as a media law barrister for over 35 years, advising national newspaper on editors on pre-publication issues. Among his other accomplishments, he has acted as an Information Rights Judge dealing with appeals under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, Data Protection Act 1998 and Environmental Information Regulations 2004.

This is a book I enjoyed and would especially recommend for its ease of digestion. It is a pity then to end on a sour note but I have to say that the author has been badly let down by publishers who have purported to publish a book of over 500 pp when 230 pp consist of appendices devoted to source materials which are of questionable usefulness and which will inevitably become outdated. For example, the Bribery Act is set out in full (40 pp) and in such a style that s 20 of that Act (‘This Act may be cited as the Bribery Act 2010’) has a page of its own, as has sch 1, para 7 ( which merely states ‘The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 is amended as follows.’).

I am sure the publishers will make a better job of the second edition, which might be needed sooner rather than later as this area of law expands at quite a pace.

The Closing of the Net

Monica Horten’s ‘The Closing of the Net’ was published by Polity Press in the Spring (£15.99 in paperback. ISBN 13:978-1-5095-0689-7. Kindle £11.99, Hardcover £45). It is a book about how law is made and it is a genuinely interesting and illuminating read. I highly recommend it. The fact that I am about to devote most of the words in this review to the book’s negative aspects merely demonstrates the extent to which I engaged with it. It was especially interesting as a pre-referendum read as the corridors of Brussels feature heavily but recent developments post-Brexit and the supposed crackdown on lobbying give it a new piquancy.

In a book that looks deep into the dark side of law-making, one can expect a little drama. As the blurb tells us we are dealing with decisions influencing the future direction of Internet communication and we see ‘corrupt political manoeuvrings’ involving the Brussels, Washington and Westminster elite. So it is not surprising that the tone edges towards that of the Scandinavian thriller from time to time. While, very broadly speaking (and hopefully just this side of paranoia), I subscribe to the theory that they are out to get you, telling me (in a fascinating Chapter 6 on filtering) that filtering ‘arguably engages with our very soul’ has me harrumphing and recollecting Faust.

The other assumption that irritated was that Google and Facebook will rule the world for ever. While I don’t dispute their importance and their influence, it is as well to remember that they remain Johnny-come-latelys and, while they have the best sandcastle on the beach and have the resources to buy or kick over all the others, the tide will sweep them away in time. I remember MySpace. In fact, I even remember when there was no BT.

This book does reveal enough of the manipulation of governments to worry even the most equable. I have often thought that we should put a stake through the heart of the very concept of stake-holder and this book re-affirms that view. But I do wonder if the assumptions about the manipulation of people are sound. While those of us in the Internet law bubble tend to think that those people who don’t care that they are carelessly surrendering their privacy and rights to freedoms are acting from ignorance, in the real world that I inhabit outside work ‘who cares?’ is winning the election by a landslide – and quite often the ‘who cares?’ advocate is quite well informed. If the battle for Internet freedom is between the MPAA and Kim Dotcom, it is hard not to sympathise with a ‘who cares?’ view: a plague on both your houses,

Having said all that, there is much more to like here than to carp at. In a finely written final chapter, Closing Pressures, Monica raises issues that require mature consideration. As she says, ‘the fingertap of desire invites an exploration of the multiple pressures on the tiny screen and the network that brings the content to it’. She thinks regulation can be the answer but is understandably uncertain about the level of government commitment to effective protection of an open Internet, when commercial pressures and political levers point to a closing of the net, or at least to a net that is as open as the Ritz or, best case scenario, a nightclub with a no-trainers dress code.

One final word: publishers who charge three times the price for a hardback are insulting their readership. Is it bound in kidskin? Price sensibly or don’t bother.