Legal profession may become tangled in the web

THE emergence of the global knowledge economy and the internetworked society has widespread implications for the legal profession.

Only a few years ago, the majority of Australian lawyers and law firms regarded the net as a fad.

Today, internet technology is not only impacting upon how lawyers conduct their business but is mounting challenges to the law itself.

In the near future there will be nowhere for the digitally homeless lawyer to hide.

As the old economy makes way for the new, it is becoming clear that the very basics of transactions, systems of distribution, legal boundaries, definitions of ownership, the taxation system and our ownership system are being challenged.

One by one the raft of systems, regulations and methodologies we have put in place to make our economy work are being tested.

Many are being found wanting. Many or most need to be amended. Some need to be discarded altogether as we develop new rules, new ways and new models.

Legal systems are based upon jurisdictions and are by their nature quite territorial. The revolution in human activity being spawned by the net has very little regard for individual jurisdictions.

During the first decade of the new millennium more than a billion people will be regularly publishing, conducting transactions and entering into a myriad of contracts every year via the net.

As this awesome volume of cross-jurisdictional activity multiplies, certain fundamental questions will be increasingly on the lips of traders, professionals and consumers alike:

• Which legal context takes precedence?

• Which laws apply?

• Who can be trusted?

• How can the law be enforced?

• How will disputes be resolved?

There is no system of international law to provide the security that many are looking for. When lawyers and legislators speak of ‘international law’ they generally refer to two types of legal system, which are known as public international law and private international law.

Public international law consists of a mass of multilateral and bilateral treaties and conventions among nations on a diverse range of issues.

Private international law is not international in a strict sense, as it focuses on those parts of national laws which deal with the application of foreign legal principles in a national court. Neither will provide adequate answers for the globally internetworked economy.

In Australia, underpinning the old economy is a vast body of common law. In addition, we own a substantial investment in statute law established over more than a century.

The modernisation of the law to cope with the IT revolution has been underway for some years.

However, the arrival of the internet is placing new and additional pressures on areas including intellectual property, copyright, patents, licensing and common law trade marks, contract law, data protection, privacy and freedom of information issues, negligence and censorship.

The legal profession can take solace that even in the midst of the most fundamental of technological revolutions a significant proportion of the status quo is preserved.

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