Laurence Eastham reviews this issue and some of the matters that we will be covering in the future
This issue of the magazine includes a moving tribute from Professor Richard Susskind, the SCL President, to one of SCL’s former presidents, Sir Brian Neill. The last two months have also seen the sad loss of Sir Henry Brooke, who was SCL President from 1992 to 2001. They were two towering figures who have never cut their ties with SCL and who, as recently as last June, were in attendance at the Online Courts Hackathon.
It seems appropriate that this issue also includes Mark O’Conor’s reflections on the way forward for SCL over the next five years and the report of the Student Tech Law Challenge, an exciting new development that may become a fixture in SCL’s calendar and which aims to nurture the development of the tech lawyers of the future. Sir Brian and Sir Henry would applaud such forward-thinking.
Much as you might like to escape thoughts of GDPR, it cannot be done. We have five articles inspired by it and I suspect that the next issue will be similarly dominated by the GDPR. I was surprised this week by a request to give my explicit consent to the retention of my name and telephone number in the database of the choir to which I belong because of ‘the new regulations’. I don’t propose to admit to any knowledge of the GDPR lest I end up with some sort of responsibility for record management, and not least because I read all these articles and forget the content pretty much straight away. But it is a good indicator that GDPR-awareness is penetrating every corner of life. If it has reached Lingmara, nowhere is out of reach.
The problem for me is that the ground is shifting with every passing week. By the time you read these GDPR-focused articles we may have updated versions online, taking account of new Article 29 Working Party guidelines or some change to ICO guidance. It is hardly a stunning insight but it is worth repeating that there remain too many areas of uncertainty when the crunch date is now looming. Given the long lead-in, crucial clarifications should have come sooner. We are some way off the point where the Article 29 Working Party make David Davis look well prepared but I am not impressed by their timing.
SCL is hosting a special event in April ‘celebrating women in the tech law space’. It is an interesting idea and reminded me that, while I have often repeated a request in my editorial for contributions from women, I have not done so for some time. That’s partly because I have begun to feel ‘job done’. A swift survey of past issues suggest that is the usual male illusion – there are more women contributors than there were but we are some way from 50:50. And I still see too many instances of multi-author articles with the real main author, who just happens to be female, relegated to third place behind a couple of male partners. It shouldn’t happen but I will resolve to challenge it when it does.
Blockchain and AI Cynicism Totters
My shaky grasp of blockchain principles led me to the conclusion that any product of it was inherently unsafe. As a result, I blanched at the idea of investing in Bitcoin even when I was tempted to experiment with it. That’s why I am here and not on my yacht in the Caribean (though, as my wife points out, I would probably have lost the key – I lose keys – and be even more regretful).
While the market price of Bitcoin has soared – and is still very high even after its correction - my cynicism has not evaporated but the number of applications that genuinely promise a working advantage is beginning to make me wonder. Smart contracts is an obvious example. There are wrinkles, one of which is fully explained by Karen Levy in this issue, and I suspect that there is a long way to go before we really see it changing business life. Ten years from now is a different matter.
I am in a similar camp when it comes to AI and its application to legal practice. Some of it is just identical to software that was around years ago. You will find quite a lot about applications of AI to legal practice in our next few issues and there is an introductory piece from Tim Pullan in this issue.
I note that the upcoming SCL Conference is going to deal with both blockchain and AI. Looking at the draft agenda for that event, which also features a keynote from Chrissie Lightfoot, I see that we are likely to see a greater focus on the practicalities of these topics. I have been happily labelling them as edgy for years but they are certainly drifting away from the edge and into the centre. Explaining their relevance and helping SCL members distinguish between the real deal and the clothes designed for an emperor may well be one mission that SCL and these pages can undertake.