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Law & Ethics in a Data-Driven Digital Society

Solar PanelsDigital communications technologies have profoundly altered our daily lives: how we relate to each other, how we interact with our environment and even the way in which we understand and present ourselves to the outside world have been affected by these advances. Scholars of digital technology claim that the development of the internet is moving towards what is called ‘Web 3.0’ (sometimes referred to as the ‘Semantic web’, or the ‘Internet of Things’) in which smart objects are able to exchange data directly with each other, thus allowing for more powerful data integration, device interaction and ‘smart’ digital decision-making intended to operate seamlessly and with minimal effort (or even conscious awareness) from individual users.

These technologies offer considerable opportunities, but also portend considerable social and political transformation. Some of these changes may be anticipated, and may be widely regarded as changing our lives for the better. But there will undoubtedly be many unexpected and possibly unwelcome consequences of these technological innovations, and it is here that regulation may be required. It is in this area that the law might have an important role to play. But, in a continuously updated, networked, global environment, our conventional understandings of law and legal institutions may need reshaping in order to fit a pervasively connected digital, data-rich world.

Digital Commerce, Digital Discrimination and Competition Law

The increasing penetration of digital communications technology into our everyday lives -- at least in contemporary industrialised economics -- has dramatically changed the way in which we work, learn, shop, connect and play. The digital economy has created both a wealth of new product choices and introducing new commercial practices. Firms both large and small have turned their attention to the ways in which big data analytics has the potential to alter radically a wide range of commercial practices that this technological capacity now makes possible, what leading cyber-scholar Julie Cohen refers to as the latest form of ‘bioprospecting’. For example, big data analytics enables firms to engage in highly personalised forms of ‘targeting’ -- including personalised advertising -- based on close tracking of the digital footprints of individuals.  

While the allure of bespoke information environments, made possible by digital personalisation strategies, is typically portrayed by marketing executives as a win-win for both retailers and consumers, these practices may also be understood as giving rise to new forms of digital discrimination. 

Such practices generate many novel competition and consumer issues with which traditional understandings of competition law and consumer welfare may struggle to grapple, underlining the need for critical interrogation and debate about whether some of the practices now possible in pervasively networked digital spaces require regulation in order to safeguard consumers from abuse or other forms of exploitation.

Academics Working in this Area:

  • Professor Karen Yeung
  • Dr Christopher Townley
Smart Building Design and Construction: Building Information Modelling

The design and construction of buildings are information intensive activities, typically requiring the collaboration and co-ordination of a large number of people to produce complex, one-off developments. Conventional building design and construction manages this process using paper-based systems and verbal instructions. However, digital communication technologies are transforming the design, building and construction process, including the use of building information modelling (BIM). 

Building Information Modelling (BIM) is a very broad term that describes the process of creating a digital model of a building or other facility (such as a bridge, highway, tunnel and so on). Essentially, BIM involves the virtual construction of a building through the development of a data-rich model which captures every aspect of a building in the design process. This model is fed through to the building’s construction, maintenance and eventual decommission. Data is extracted directly from the building’s components and is continually monitored and analysed, thereby offering extensive gains in economic efficiency, environmentally sustainability and broader social benefits through the possibilities of advanced urban planning and construction in building cities of the future.

At its core, the purpose of BIM is to ensure that appropriate information is created in a suitable format at the right time so that better decisions can be made throughout the design, construction and operation of built assets. BIM represents a new approach to the design, construction and maintenance of buildings that has emerged over the last two decades, and it forms a central element of the work undertaken with the Centre for Construction Law.

Academics Working in this Area:

  • Professor David Mosey
  • Mr Christopher Howard
Interrogating the Big Data Revolution

Many commentators claim that we are on the cusp of the ‘Big Data’ revolution, a development bringing radical transformation that will revolutionize the way we live, work and think.

Although there is no universally agreed definition of ‘Big Data’, it is essentially a shorthand for the combination of a technology and a process.  The technology is a configuration of information-processing hardware capable of sifting, sorting and interrogating vast quantities of data in very short times. The process involves mining the data for patterns, distilling the patterns into predictive analytics and applying the analytics to new data. 

Together, the technology and the process comprise a technique for converting the data flows into a particular, highly data-intensive type of knowledge.1 A key contribution of Big Data is the ability to find useful correlations within datasets that are not capable of analysis by ordinary human assessment. Optimists focus on Big Data’s promises of positive transformation, enabling us to solve intractable and urgent global problems such as climate change and malnutrition, and respond to profound global health inequalities through the ability to gather, analyse and act upon vast tracts of data that were previously unattainable. Pessimists, however, highlight the inexorable slide of Big Data practices in the direction of an Orwellian surveillance society.

Scholars across the university are working on Big Data related projects, as part of the university’s objective in prioritizing Big Data as a strategic focus for research. In the field of law and the social sciences, researchers are working on a number of challenging projects ranging from the evaluation of the potential for Big Data to transform healthcare and medicine, to seeking to understand the ways in which young people share and give meaning to their data.  

1Cohen, Julie E. Configuring the Networked Self. New Have: Yale University Press, 2012.

Academics Working in this Area:

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