Lawyers immersed in the still developing field of cyberlaw are a bit like Star Trek explorers, taking law where no one has gone before. As more of us connect to this virtual world, life has changed in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago. The number of homes with Internet usage has risen from less than 10 percent of the U.S. population in 1995 to near 80 percent today—but the law is in catch-up mode. And there are growing pains.

The handle of a court mallet is split open by a digitized computer arrow.
Illustration by Christoph Neimann

A winter course Difficult Problems in Cyberlaw, co-hosted by Stanford Law and Harvard Law and co-taught by Professors Jonathan Zittrain and Elizabeth Stark, took aim at some of the more intractable legal challenges in the field.

“Facebook has more members than many countries have citizens,” says Zittrain. “When you understand the impact that a single company in this space can have on the public, on clients, on nonsubscribers, on users—when you grasp that, you start to realize that Internet policy and cyberlaw are very significant—and have huge consequences.”

Held at Stanford Law, the course brought together 20 JD and advanced degree students from Harvard and Stanford to tackle real-life problems pertaining to Internet commerce, governance, security, and information dissemination. It explored overlapping themes including due process online among private enforcers, collaboration and reliance on the general public, and such issues as privacy and anonymity on the Internet. The Internet was both subject and vital tool, with research, presentations, and proposed solutions shared on a class wiki. It was an intense three-week course that included daily classroom sessions, excursions to outside experts at companies such as Google and Facebook, and visits to the class from Internet startup founders and executives such as Craig Newmark from Craigslist and Mike 
Godwin from Wikimedia Foundation.

That Internet luminaries like these agreed to spend time at Stanford listening to student presentations—and offering input—seems extraordinary. But, Zittrain says, Stanford Law School’s good relationships with many of Silicon Valley’s business leaders made all the difference—as did the benefits these executives would receive in return.

“If you’re running a startup or even a more mature firm, it’s rare that you have a chance to take a step back from what you’re doing to think about the larger issues and how the issues might play out across companies and spaces,” says Zittrain.

But it was a heady—and exhausting—three-week ride for the students.

“We were sort of developing the game plan while playing the game,” says 
Frances Lee, LLM ’10, an IP lawyer from Canada, noting that the course was not cyberlaw per se and students were encouraged to push beyond law to find solutions in the short period of time they had. “We’re in a legal vacuum right now, not quite sure how to apply the law to cyberspace. It’s what makes this field so interesting.”

Rather than focusing on theory, 
students researched and proposed solutions to real problems.

“I’ve never had a course that encouraged students to go out and try to fix something. This class did just that,” says Lee, whose group took a critical look at Wikipedia and suggested solutions for better collaboration on the online encyclopedia. “We were encouraged to look beyond the law, to technology, to business, to go beyond our own areas of expertise to find truly creative solutions.”

Students’ development as lawyers in this brave new world was not lost in the rush.

“The most important aspect of this class was to give students a recognition of their own influence, for them to realize that there are so many unanswered questions in cyberlaw and that they might actually have something to contribute, as well as learn. They really can help to solve these problems,” says Zittrain.

1 Response to Students Take on Difficult Problems in Cyberlaw
  1. As a future law student myself with an interest in cyberlaw and intellectual property, the frontier that is internet regulation holds great interest for me. While communication and cooperation are what have allowed humans to share resources and progress from nomadic animals to today’s highly complex society, we have had many generations over which to hone interpersonal codes of conduct in the real world. Because the online world is so new and fast-growing, we must look to cyberlaw to impose some tried and true rules as well as to create new ones. The open source and cross-jurisdictional environment online creates problems for regulation. With immune webhosts and anonymous end-point users, it is no easy feat to apply the law in cyberspace. Still, cyberlaw must find a balance of freedom and regulation that best protects us all online. Facing a problem so complex, I believe it is fundamentally important to create environments like this course, wherein students with diverse academic backgrounds and opinions collaborate to formulate innovative solutions. Once some legal frameworks are in place to deal with evolving problems in e-commerce, privacy, and property laws, it is my belief that norms of online communication and cooperation will follow. These standards of cyber-interaction will take some pressure off of cyberlaw to impose rules and will hopefully protect online freedom by promoting self-regulation of activities outside the reach of the law.

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