Timely to learn a little law

An IT manager looking to add another string to his or her bow could do worse than learning about the law. Not only would it help you keep up with the numerous legislative changes that are happening at present, but it could prove lucrative or, more likely, save you a pile of money.

An IT manager looking to add another string to his or her bow could do worse than learning about the law. Not only would it help you keep up with the numerous legislative changes that are happening at present, but it could prove lucrative or, more likely, save you a pile of money.

The clue to its earning potential comes from the fact that so many lawyers are turning to the world of IT as a source of business. While many of us can probably claim that some of our best friends are lawyers, that doesn’t stop us from also expressing the disparaging view that, where there’s money, they’re sure to go. The fact is, though, that legal fees being what they are, friends in the profession or knowledge of the law are handy to have.

That’s why I was a little surprised to observe the apparent lack of interest by IT practitioners in an e-business law conference in Auckland last week. The event, staged by IIR, was well attended by lawyers and one or two officials of government agencies, but I spotted just one IT manager on the attendee list. Is it a shortage of training funds or of time (the two-day event cost about $2000) that kept IT management away; or is the law simply not your concern? I’m trying to resist jumping to hasty conclusions, so wonder if it was the event’s focus on e-business legal issues that failed to attract IT attention?

Whatever the reason for the underwhelming IT showing at this conference, there’s no doubt that legal traps abound for IT today. In part that’s because of the internet and e-commerce, which extend IT’s responsibilities into new realms. An organisation’s computer system used to be a piece of internal infrastructure, invisible to the outside world. But these days which company doesn’t have a website? Who isn’t implementing some form of internet-based supply chain or customer management system? While worrying about the legal complications of such systems might not be a direct IT management function, it would be a reckless IT boss who didn’t at least know where the e-business pitfalls lie. (Who’s responsible, for example, for defamatory postings from pro- and anti-pesticide lobbyists on your agribusiness website? A landmark case last year ruled that the intemporate can defame online just as effectively as in print, but is the author of the defamatory words the lawbreaker, or the website publisher, or both?)

If changing technology is one reason for greater wariness than ever of legal minefields, legislative changes are another. New laws are being drafted — and are long overdue, in some cases — relating to electronic transactions, hacking, patents, copyright, interceptibility of communications, auctions and undoubtedly other obscure areas of life, many of which have a bearing on IT management. Whose job is it to keep tabs on all of this and work out whether your organisation needs to change the way it does things to stay legal? What do the proposed laws say about retaining email as a record of electronic transactions, for example?

If you’re lucky, you’ll have an in-house lawyer who can find out for you and help draft a new set of operational procedures for your organisation. If you’re unlucky, you might not learn about the implications of the new laws except by painful — that is, costly — experience.

Plenty of dire warnings have been uttered about the consequences for New Zealand of not yet having laws in place to secure our place in a global e-market. The absence of statutes making electronic transactions legally binding and outlawing hacking are “knee-capping” the country’s e-commerce moves, according to the Information Technology Association. Yet perhaps the reason last week’s event had such a poor IT showing is that real life lags what lobbyists are saying.

According to a lawyer who was one of the country’s first to spot the IT opportunity, his staple remains contract work. Memorable IT legal battles he’s been involved with come down to inadequate procurement contracts or specifications, rather than “new economy” issues of intellectual property rights, copyright, electronic audit trails, domain name management, cross-border sales and the rest. While he agrees that failure so far to have passed the Electronic Transactions Bill means “we’ve dropped behind the eight-ball” and we’re “dragging the chain a bit” on the anti-hacking Crimes Amendment (No 6) Bill, he thinks a wait and see approach to the rest makes sense for a small country.

As for the advisability of IT management burying its head in the sand on legal issues, that would be a “seriously career-limiting move”, in his view. Since he first began cashing in on the IT opportunity almost 20 years ago, the country’s biggest law firms have formed their own IT teams and other IT specialist IT firms have arisen. His advice for IT managers wanting to know where they stand legally speaking is get what you can for free from the law firms’ websites. And, of course, read Computerworld’s TechLaw column.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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