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The Future of Computing and the Law
January 2001

Bill Wood is an Assistant City Attorney, in the San Antonio City Attorney's Office. He practices real estate and technology law for the city .

Our editor asked us to think about the future of computing for our January issue. As a lawyer that has been a big challenge. Lawyers are trained to analyze a problem and provide advice based on historical precedents. It is almost a cliché, but there are very few precedents for the challenges of integrating technology into our daily lives. But, I have been thinking about it and I have a few ideas about our legal future. 

 I still remember seeing my first computer. I was a freshman at St. Maryís University back in 1967. The school had an IBM ďmainframeĒ in a glassed-in room. Students and professors stored programs on punch cards and gladly booked a half-hour of computer time in the middle of the night. And everything was spotless. The computers demanded temperature and humidity control. And did I mention, No dust! 

Computers have broken out of that confinement and the rest of the world must deal with them, ready or not. In 1967 the computer technicians could test and retest before a change in operation or use was implemented. Today, we download new programs in minutes and can crash a system in nano-seconds. Sorting out the legal liability for the catastrophe can take years. 

Thirty-three years later I sit in a cluttered home-office with several computers. It’s a mess. I’ve been promising my wife for months that I would clean it up. When I do take a small step to tidy-up, I’m sure to play it up. I need all the brownie points I can get. There is that new gadget that I want. 

I think the past lessons of the last thirty years, and my messy home office, may give a hint as to legal future of computing.  We have gone from big and isolated to small and ubiquitous. In many cases computers arenít computers anymore. I can program my watch to remind me to take my pills. Other intelligent agents monitor engine performance in autos. People at meetings consult hand-held computers for airline schedules and email. Our daughter has ďchattedĒ with pals around the world via the Internet.

Oh, and as I write this, everybody is still waiting to figure out who will be the President. One side tells us the computers counted the ballots in Florida and that should be it. The other side wants humans to hand count each ballot because the machines missed something. 

Yes, computers are everywhere but most people still donít really trust them. Like my cluttered office, the legal world of computing is very messy. Every session of Congress or the legislature tries to tidy-up a bit. But, it seems some politicians are more interested in getting the credit for just tidying up the messy technology laws than for doing something serious about defining a legal framework for our technological future.

Maybe that is because until very recently, the men and women in government did not have a clear understanding of computer use. Like many of us, they are still learning about computers and the uses of technology for our society. They know how to do a few things with a computer but probably have never looked inside one to see what is under the hood. In that way, they are truly representatives of their constituents. 

All to often they only hear from donors and trade organizations that seek special treatment. Sometimes that is justified, such as inquiries from constituents that have been caught in some bureaucratic process. But, it is probably very rare that they simply hear from typical users that express opinions and concerns about technology. It might be worthwhile for groups such as this one, the Alamo PC Organization, to add every member of the Bexar County legislative delegation to the mailing list. We need to ensure that they learn about the basics of technology. Iíd love to see John Woody teach one of them to put terminators on the end of a networking cable. Sue Ives could teach one to find information on the Internet. Better still, it might be a good idea to host the entire delegation at an upcoming general meeting. Iím not advocating that we get involved in politics because that would not be in the organizations best interest. However, both the APCO members and the legislators can learn from each other.  

A few things are clear. As more routine work is turned over to computers we must train (or retrain) our workforce to deal with the situation. It is one thing for the inspector at the end of the production line to pick up a bright new widget and judge its quality. It takes a very different set of skills to review the work of an automated quality control system. That inspector must not only know a good widget when she sees one. She must be able to understand and use the computer that tests each one as it comes off the assembly line. How many times have you dealt with a situation where the end product just didnít look right but the computer said it passed the test? Iíve worked in a building where they installed an expensive climate control system. Frankly, Iím not sure it knew the difference between too hot and too cold. But every human that walked into the space could tell.

We need a legal structure in place that allows us to adjust the technology temperature based upon our needs. Needs change from season to season and no one solution will always apply. I believe the legal future of technology may hinge on trusting our instincts. The laws need to be in place for the humans to fix things when something is wrong. 

There are significant legal issues on the horizon. The UCITA (Uniform Computer Information Transaction Act) has been sent to the various state legislatures. Privacy issues, trademark, copyright and yes, even casting votes over the Internet, are often discussed.  

Our Texas legislature will be convening again this month. Because it will deal with drawing new legislative districts based upon last yearís census, I doubt that any significant amount of time will be devoted to technology laws during this session. I hope that doesnít mean the legislators will make hasty decisions. UCITA deals with the ability of persons to electronically contract with someone else. It deserves serious debate. Supporters note that it would provide a comprehensive framework for on-line contracting and that it would provide the comfort zone for an explosive growth of E-commerce. As I have noted in previous articles, it even allows one personís computer system to search for needed items such as iron ore for a steel mill. The software would evaluate offers from the suppliersí computers and then enter binding contracts for the items. In effect, it allows machines and software to do things previously reserved to human action. In this case, entering legally binding contracts.

 Detractors say it was written to protect the big information and software houses. They claim it has serious negative implications for consumers. They point out that E-commerce is booming anyway. Other attacks center on the proposed lawís recognition that one party to an electronic contract can change the terms at some point in the future by merely posting a revision to the terms on some remote web site. Critics ask that it require an affirmative action by the other party that indicates he is both aware of the change and that he desires to continue with the contract. As written, simply continuing to use the software or service without knowledge of the change can be legally binding consent to the contract change.

Our legislators are going to be pressed for time. The members of this organization could be an invaluable resource to them. From our side, they canít represent us unless we introduce ourselves 

So, what is the future of law and technology? 

I donít know. It will depend upon making sure the lawmakers meet real people that are computer users, programmers and service technicians. Only then will they be able to evaluate the full impact of proposed legislation.

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