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Legal policy often lags behind tech innovation – is this good or bad?


It often seems that technology innovation outpaces the law. As new tech is created, policies lag behind. Grey areas remain and nefarious practices can storm in very quickly.

I’m thinking of cases like Napster, enabling music files to be shared from peer-to-peer, eventually brought down for copyright infringement.

I wondered how legal theorists think about this, so I asked Dr Taiwo Oriola, who lectures at Ulster University in areas such as intellectual property law, internet law and ethics. Taiwo is based at the Magee campus.

“Technology does outpace regulation – and this is for a very good reason,” said Taiwo. “If the law is too proactive it will stifle innovation and growth. We don’t want policy makers rushing in to quash new technological developments too early.” 

Current examples show how policies impact our society

Legal policies can have a direct impact on us – particularly with some advanced technologies. In the case of genetically modified (GM) crops, many public fears have arisen into the safety of eating these foods. However there is no scientific proof of a link between eating GM foods and safety risks.

Taiwo said, “Sometimes new technologies could pose considerable risks to society. In such circumstances, greater regulatory oversight would be required to assuage public fears and concerns.”

“A good example is GM crops. GM crops and foods are required to be labelled in the European Union, but there is no labelling law as such in North America, where GM and non-GM foods are considered to be substantially equivalent. The two approaches respectively demonstrate proactive and reactionary policy regimes. While GM crops and foods have prospered in North America, there is little uptake in Europe, essentially halting the technology and associated industries in their tracks.”

Does this framework continue to function even as the pace of innovation increases?

“The pace of innovation is faster than ever, as you say,” said Taiwo. “The new question we come across all the time is, what are the implications of automation?”

“Automation will result in unemployment, impacting professionals such as drivers, teachers, lawyers and doctors,” he said. “People think there should be regulatory oversight over automation, but who could control that? You cannot reverse the technology, as exemplified by the ongoing arrangements to accommodate self-driving vehicles on public roads.”

He continued, “Imagine the immediate impact of automated vehicles on the haulage industry. What would the drivers do for a living? Governmental policies must address the side effect of unemployment from automation, rather than trying to stop the trend of automation, because it cannot be stopped.”

“For example, Canada and Finland have proposed establishing universal basic income as a policy response to jobs lost to automation.”

Do you teach about current affairs? For instance, hacking into elections?

Taiwo said, “Our computer law curriculum covers crimes that include computer hacking as defined by the Computer Misuse Act 1990, and the considerable body of case law that have been generated since then.”

“We also discuss online privacy generally in the context of big data, data protection, data retention, data commodification, and regulatory oversight for online surveillance systems.”

What’s next for you?

“We’re trying to boost enrolments on the LLM Commercial Law Programme by repackaging it to accurately reflect the modules on offer, as well as opening up the programme on Belfast Campus.”


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