Collaborating with Computer Scientists

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on October 4, 2016


First of a 3-part Interview with Christopher Millard and Ian Walden


“It's incumbent upon us to try and understand the technology that we're writing, thinking, and talking about.” – Professor Ian Walden


“Understanding what's possible technically is a key part of doing the assessment of whether the law makes sense in practice.” – Professor Christopher Millard


Law professors Christopher Millard and Ian Walden, both with the Centre for Commercial Law Studies at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), discuss their work collaborating with fellow technology lawyers and computer scientists on the challenges in cloud computing where technology and regulation intersect. In their work with the Microsoft Cloud Computing Research Centre (MCCRC), Professors Millard and Walden are researching and writing on issues such as the policy and regulatory implications of data localization (such as a proposed Europe-only cloud and specific in-country processing requirements), the complexities of Internet-connected devices (the Nest connected thermostat for example), and liability and compliance issues arising from machine learning and artificial intelligence.


TAP had the pleasure of interviewing professors Millard and Walden about their recent work with the MCCRC, and their research with the complexities of cloud computing and the Internet-of-Things as well as cloud computing and data sovereignty. In this first of a three-part series, they discuss the value gained when technology lawyers and computer scientists collaborate.


What Are the Benefits of Technology Lawyers Collaborating with Computer Scientists?


Christopher Millard
I would say the collaboration is a tremendous benefit to both sides. At the basic level of the way we use particular words as lawyers, and the way that computer scientists use the same words, we frequently find that there are fundamental differences in the assumptions that we make about what we mean. This could be to do with a concept such as ‘data protection’, for example, or what is involved in a particular security obligation. Each time we start a new topic, we spend some time talking about taxonomies, to see if we actually agree or can find a formulation that works for both the computer scientists and the lawyers.


Ian Walden
I also think that our job as academics is to do work that is realistic and honest. If you don't speak to the technologies, or you don't understand the technology, you can't claim to be able to have an impact on policy or developments in general. I think it's incumbent upon us to try and understand the technology that we're writing, thinking, and talking about.


Christopher Millard
The other thing I would add is in terms of what constitutes a "good law." If you have a law that can't be complied with in practice, even if you make a good faith effort to do so – which many companies do, for example in the area of data protection, or with the restrictions on international transfers of data – then it's not a good law. Understanding what's possible technically is a key part of doing the assessment of whether the law makes sense in practice. It's all very well for us to do an analysis of what the law says on the books, and even what the courts think the law means, but if companies are not complying with it because they can't, for some technical reason, then it's very important that we understand that.


How Do the Computer Scientists View this Collaboration?


Ian Walden
There is an increasing recognition within the computing profession that their work has implications. Not just in terms of being able to do things in a more efficient way, but also that they have other real-world implications in terms of privacy and in terms of security. There has been talk for the past 10 to 15 years, since Lawrence Lessig wrote a book, "Code is Law," about to what extent computer code and traditional law are similar and different. For a number of years they were seen as quite similar, and I think it's increasingly recognized that they're quite different. It's important to understand those differences.


I've spent my career dealing with computer professionals, and they tend to see the world in black and white, in binary. They find law quite frustrating, because it's not black and white. There are limitations of language. You can't express things in statutory language with the precision that you can in computer language. They get frustrated with discretion. The fact that justice requires the exercise of discretion, departing from rules in some cases, because it's appropriate and just to do that. They find it frustrating that the vocabulary that is used in law, words like adequate or reasonable, don't compute in a code-based world.


Christopher Millard
An important example of that is in data protection law. The first, arguably, most fundamental principle is that personal data – information about an identifiable individual – must only be processed in a way that is fair and lawful. And fairness, again, is not a binary concept. You can't just write an on/off code switch, saying it's fair or it's not fair; it depends on the circumstances. Even lawful, it's not that simple. Because what if you have multiple, applicable laws within a jurisdiction, or conflicts of laws between jurisdictions? How can you say in a binary way, "This is lawful and that is unlawful?" Because simultaneously, an act may be lawful and unlawful.


What Do You Enjoy About This Work?


Ian Walden
Ever changing. I'm constantly learning. What can be more exciting than learning something new every day?


Christopher Millard
I agree with that. And I like the fact that it is multidisciplinary. We are constantly having to get up to speed, not just on law but on technology and on wider societal issues, public policy issues, even areas like psychology can be relevant to our work. It's a constant learning experience. I've been doing this for 34 years now and I'm far from being bored because I know that the pace of change is still accelerating. Every year there will be more fascinating stuff for us to work on.


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Christopher Millard is Professor of Privacy and Information Law and head of the Cloud Legal Project in the Centre for Commercial Law Studies, Queen Mary University of London. He is also a Research Associate at the Oxford Internet Institute and is Senior Counsel to the law firm Bristows. He is Editor and Co-Author of Cloud Computing Law (Oxford University Press, 2013) and is a founding editor of the International Journal of Law and IT and of International Data Privacy Law. Professor Millard is a Fellow and former Chairman of the Society for Computers & Law, a past-President of the International Federation of Computer Law Associations, and a past-Chair of the Technology Law Committee of the International Bar Association.


Ian Walden is Professor of Information and Communications Law and head of the Institute of Computer and Communications Law in the Centre for Commercial Law Studies, Queen Mary University of London. Professor Walden has held visiting positions at the Universities of Texas and Melbourne. His publications include EDI and the Law (1989), Information Technology and the Law (1990), EDI Audit and Control (1993), Cross-border Electronic Banking (2nd ed., 2000), Telecommunications Law Handbook (1997), E-Commerce Law and Practice in Europe (2001), Media Law and Practice (2009), Telecommunications Law and Regulation (4th ed., 2012) and Free and Open Source Software (2013), and Computer Crimes and Digital Investigations (2nd ed., 2016).


The Microsoft Cloud Computing Research Centre (MCCRC) is a virtual research center involving the Cloud Legal Project at the Centre for Commercial Law Studies, Queen Mary University of London (CLP), which has been conducting pioneering research in the emerging field of cloud computing law since 2009, and the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory (CCL), a world class research center working in key areas relevant to the development of cloud computing, including distributed systems, networking and security, associated with the Center for Science and Policy (CSaP), that provides the network and mechanisms for high-quality engagement between academics and policy professionals.


TAP graciously thanks Professors Christopher Millard and Ian Walden for sharing their expertise and time.


Read more from TAP’s interview with Professors Millard and Walden: