Conference Report: Web 2.0 Internet Law in the 21st Century

July 9, 2007

The wet weather was by now becoming typical of June and the start of summer and rather surprisingly it was not the only reason for unforeseen travel delays. Delegates travelling from the north and relying upon Network Rail were reminded of the vagaries of real-life as the various train managers apologised for the late running of their service ‘which was due to the theft of copper wire signalling equipment by vandals in the Wakefield area’. I suspect that I wasn’t the only person planning their journey to Oxford without ever anticipating the butterfly effect of remote crime (real-world tangible crime, as opposed to the virtual online variety that occupied and engaged conference delegates over the course of a most stimulating and rewarding two days).


Registration on arrival at St Anne’s College was a typically efficient affair, with keys and entry codes despatched alphabetically. No time was wasted in finding the lecture theatre where Clive Davies was already convening the first session: The Brave New World of Web 2.0.


This session provided a much-needed overview, not just in identifying what Web 2.0 was in contrast to Web 1.0, but also in attempting to set the scene for any attendant Web 2.0 specific legal issues. Tom Ilube built on the Wikipedia definition of Web 2.0, representing the perceived second generation shift towards social collaboration and networking, certainly an observable phenomenon to anybody familiar with Facebook, Myspace and YouTube. Moreover, it is only when detailing the characteristics of Web 2.0 that we identify where the powerbase really lies, whilst the social users are essential it is the owners of their collective data, ie the hard-to-recreate data source that wield the ultimate power. 


Lunch was an opportunity to meet a breadth of delegates and also a chance to volunteer to punt later that evening. The Chairman, Bill Jones did insist on a show of hands to target such ‘volunteers’.


The first of the afternoon sessions addressed the possible legal issues in these ‘virtual worlds’ where social networkers are now being caught up by consumers and in turn by the law itself. It is the business model often pre-existing Web 2.0, that is of greatest interest to lawyers. Indeed it could be said that technology is simply ’unmasking’ poor business models and additionally that law assumes more significance when consumerism and money enter. As Professor Lilian Edwards so colourfully said ‘it is the licking of the cream off the long tail’ that motivates these Web 2.0 entities simply because it extends their marketing reach and provides them with further revenue streams. (As a point of interest, MIT have already moved on from Web 2.0 and are busy on the next generational variant –what will that be? Web 2.5 Web 3.0?) Most legal delegates were struggling here to grasp the criteria (or how to identify it in the first place) that determines each generation and I found my ‘techie’ self describing it as a definition that can only really be seen or made in hindsight ie not in advance. (So, whatever MIT are up to, possibly they can’t yet define it either.)


The contingency planning talents of the speakers were tested as the conference suffered its first bout of ‘projector interruptus’. All speakers should be congratulated on reverting seamlessly to type as their Powerpoint presentations failed due to the St Anne’s projector entering sleep mode, a safety feature to protect it from overheating. The video recording team literally pulled their hair out as they eliminated everything but the projector in their attempts to rescue the outage.


Speakers soldiered on through the final session of day one which asked ‘What does this all mean for law firms? Euan Semple, an ex-BBC man, brought some fascinating slideshow animations demonstrating how the written word has changed through digital form and hypertext extension (unfortunately cut short by the projector problem, but not before the message was elegantly conveyed). For me, Euan refreshingly succeeded in ‘squaring the circle’ that is the Technology – Law debate: he stated simply that it is not about technology, it is not about law, but it is in fact about people, about relationships and about the power therein. The recognition that blogs have more interesting content than other more formal vehicles has led to editorial control issues and a move towards social inclusion measured as participation and contribution; an ability to answer questions is social power, whereas having no answer is now viewed as a social weakness.  Knowledge it seems is indeed power and ideas codified into knowledge can become property when legal systems confer and enforce intellectual property rights. Knowledge bears the hallmark of what economists term a ‘public good’ – its use by any one person does not preclude its use by others.  


Optional punting was followed by pre-dinner drinks in the marquee and dinner in the main hall.   


Professor Chris Reed rose to the lectern amidst eagerly awaited readiness for his after-dinner thoughts and comments on the conference debate thus far. He outlined his predictions for the future; that firstly law and regulation will follow the money and in that sense Web 2.0 is perhaps commerce driven. Secondly he predicted that existing laws will be applied to Web 2.0, and thirdly that this will apply the existing legal approach to social collaborations. In keeping with Web 1.0 he predicted that new laws will only be made for the virtual world where there are no real-world equivalents available. Any thoughts he might have had that he could quietly return to his seat were scuppered as question after question rained from the floor – the delegates, possibly well lubricated, contributed to a lively and intellectually provocative discussion that moved naturally to the St Anne’s bar and perhaps further on into the night.


Breakfast on Saturday morning found delegates still wrestling with the working definition of Web 2.0, their faculties perhaps clouded by their social collaborating the night before.


Session four of the conference and the first of the day compared the Online Privacy approaches of the EU and the US. The US approach, criticised for its patchwork system, relies on post event redress through a lawyer whereas the EU model protects the data regardless of the owner. In truth, global solutions are needed. The EU must not be complacent and could learn from the US system, eg stronger penalties, class actions and pressure groups.


Mid–morning coffee was followed by Stephen Dooley ‘It is not the spoon that bends, there is no spoon’ a suitable introduction to the session asking ‘Who Owns Goods in a Virtual World?’ The video team had moved up the learning curve by Saturday as the projector was now soothed by numerous fans, restricting further outages to a minute or two and allowing speakers to anticipate what was now a source of humorous distraction for delegates.


Akin to the previous night’s debate about virtual consent, the Conference moved onward through virtual reality and entered the margins of surrealism: Game Development. Apparently game development is becoming ‘beyond control’ with ownership being derived from creativity and a code does already exist for online IP ownership in China. Whether you are a developer, grinder or even a trader, gaming has a significant net worth (still measured in hard currency not virtual swords).


Duncan Calow suggested six issues for virtual worlds: Property,  Commerce, Crime,  Government, Privacy and Adult Content and Rohan Massey attempted to shed light on the existing Liabilities & Jurisdiction on the Internet –what already exists to regulate virtual worlds. Rohan summarised the need for global legal response with the analogy of ripples on a millpond – do we see these ripples in cyberspace?


The final speaker, Graham Smith offered advice to any new lawyer asked to speak at a conference, ensure you don’t accept the last talk, in the last session and on the last day, especially when you have minus 10 minutes to speak. With perhaps one eye on lunch or more probably on the weekend, delegates made this slight overrun a highly enjoyable one amid Graham’s humorous references to persistent garden moles. The Chairman then took the opportunity to ‘stop when everybody wanted more!’ and the conference came to a successful close.    


Credit must be given to Ruth Baker and Caroline Gould for organising a superb conference – superb not just in terms of content and speakers but most importantly in the consistently high quality of thought provoking debate. The conference delivered a valuable and necessary forum for the discussion of Web 2.0 issues. 



Carl Davies is a Management Consultant and Technical Writer having over 25 years experience in ICT. He is currently undertaking Graduate Studies into the socio-legal aspects of the Internet at the University of Oxford (