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Law and the Internet

Key Information

Course details
MSc Option course, Hilary Term
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Professor Viktor Mayer-Schönberger


Every day we seem to wake up to a new controversy online – from massive leaks of personal data to digital surveillance by government around the world to biases in data shaping important human decisions. What is the role of law in this brave new world? This is the question this course aims to answer using a mix of recent cases, pertinent theory and useful conceptual frameworks.

The legal system has a reputation for conservatism and resistance to change. The Internet, on the other hand, symbolizes rapid change in how humans acquire and disseminate information, and how they communicate. It is perhaps not surprising then that the Internet poses distinct challenges to the legal system, potentially even undermining its effectiveness. By the same token, the legal system is often accused of stifling innovation online, of limiting the Internet‘s potential by subjecting it to outdated legal constraints.

As there has been a relentless move online of social, business, government and other relationships (and related transactions and disputes), questions are again being asked about whether there is something special, perhaps indeed transformative, about the Internet and its impact on law and legal institutions. In this course we will look at three distinct challenges cyberspace may pose to the legal system: a rights challenge, a transactional challenge, and a structural challenge. We’ll explore each of these challenges, their implications, and likely consequences for the future trajectory of both cyberspace and the legal system.

The course takes a closer look at the challenges posed by networked information technologies to societal institutions of governance. This involves two analytical steps: (a) understanding the challenges and limitations of conventional legal institutions on the Internet, especially those administered by the State, and (b) reinterpreting and reinventing these institutions in the context of the Internet.

Learning Outcomes

At the end of the course students will:

  • Have a framework to conceptualize the governance debates in digitally networked environments;
  • Be able to assess critically the opportunities and limitations of both state and non-state legal institutions on the Internet;
  • Be able to think creatively about the normative challenges of the Internet and make this knowledge productive for policy analysis and design.