Industry 4.0 promises total networking of products, processes and systems. New technologies focus on machines, and artificial intelligence already outstrips human intelligence in some areas. The ‘digital revolution’ will alter our daily lives dramatically and enrich humanity. No question. But human networking, mutual exchange and shared development of ideas enrich us just as much. And that means person to person, face to face.
Human networking is key, and not just in our professional lives. And that’s the case in the SWITCH Legal team as well. One example is our membership of CENTR, an association of registries for country-specific top-level domain names (ccTLDs) in Europe. That includes .ch for Switzerland and .de for Germany. For the lawyers, there’s the CENTR Legal and Regulatory Meeting, which takes place three times a year. Exchanging ideas with lawyers from other registries leads to relationships of trust, and this makes it easier for us to move into new areas.
I can gain more specialist knowledge at one of these meetings than I can in weeks of poring over legal works. The last meeting in Oxford is a good example of this. The main topic was data protection and the implementation of the EU’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The WHOIS issue was the subject of particularly intense discussion, as the GDPR no longer allows it in its present form. The WHOIS database allows any interested party to get details of domain name owners, including name and address, in real time. As a third-country organisation, we aren't obliged to implement EU law to the same degree, and so there is no requirement for us to adapt our WHOIS database. In fact, a quirk of Swiss law allows publication of the data. I won’t bore you with the legal arguments here. But in Oxford I defended this principle and came in for some sharp criticism. Even at dinnertime, I was peppered with all sorts of legal questions. Finally, around 20 attendees had collected around my table, and the discussion led to an open debate on the new data protection law. We each got to disclose our implementation strategies, criticise, pose questions and air uncertainties. It wasn't about being right. It was about pointing out risks and achieving a consensus. Although we were all worn out from travelling and from the meeting, we kept on discussing the issue well into the night.
One lawyer from the Finnish registry whispered to me, ‘Anna, this is the most important part of the meeting. Despite all the books and lectures on data protection. Right now with these experts you benefit the most!’ And she was right on the money. I had a team of the best-trained legal minds around me. What I would otherwise only gain through a major investment of time or expensive expert opinion was being served up to me on a silver platter in an informal atmosphere. And our nocturnal discussions resulted in solutions for many of the legal sticking points, if not all of them. As I flew home the next morning, I felt vindicated in our argument on WHOIS, as it had been critically examined but ultimately not overturned. Even better was the feeling of being able to rely on professional support in a familiar environment. And knowing that you can fully trust in that assistance, because you’re in the same boat and pulling in the same direction. No matter how intelligent machines become, they will never be able to replace that feeling. There will always be moments when you need to pull the plug.