Digital media and internet policy

As the internet becomes ubiquitous in daily life, the question of how it is regulated is increasingly important. Often, governments, legislators and regulators struggle to keep pace with rapidly changing technology.

Network cables

New information law cluster at Sussex

A new information law cluster at the University of Sussex aims to investigate and inform policy on the legal, regulatory and policy underpinning of the internet.

Internet science is a cross-disciplinary field that includes network engineering, computation, complexity, networking, security, mathematics, physics, sociology, game theory, economics, political sciences, humanities, evolutionary biology and psychology, and law, as well as other relevant social and life sciences.

Creating internet science is an audacious idea that has the potential to approach the importance of the foundation of the formal study of environmental science 40 years ago.

In the product lifecycle of transformative technologies, it is suggested that the impact of innovation on society is more profound in the second 40 years than in the first 40 years.

As the internet is now 40 years old, it is perhaps the next 40 years that will be the most influential in it becoming ubiquitous and embedded in our daily lives.

With that ubiquity comes the need for proper governance and regulation.

Professor Chris Marsden's research

Professor Chris Marsden, a lawyer who has worked in academia and industry, and with governments in helping develop policy on the legal regulation of the internet, joined the University of Sussex in 2013 to help establish a new research cluster in this area.

Professor Marsden's research covers many different areas. One involves the concept of 'net neutrality' – the principle that internet service providers (ISPs), and perhaps other businesses supplying services through the internet, do not interfere with content.

This includes the content that users access and, as we increasingly generate as well as access content, the activity of 'prosumers' – those who create and access content online.

As technology and software become more sophisticated, it becomes easier to analyse how people use the internet and the type of information they seek.

With that comes the potential for providers to interfere with internet traffic. Why bother, one might wonder? Because blocking or slowing down access to certain sites while speeding up other services may have specific economic benefits for ISPs.

The purpose of this work on net neutrality is to find regulatory and legal solutions that balance the rights of businesses and citizens.

Because of the potential policy impact, Professor Marsden has been invited as a keynote speaker in May 2013 at the Council of Europe, Strasbourg – the human rights body that seeks to develop common and democratic principles based on the European Convention on Human Rights – and at the European Parliament in June 2013.

Network of excellence on internet science

Another major area of Professor Marsden's research, funded by a grant from the European Commission Seventh Framework Project (FP7), is to develop a network of excellence on internet science.

The goal of the project is to understand ways in which we can design and build a better internet, one that is more suited toward and responsive to user needs: for example, by building in privacy protection and better security.

The work also aims to understand how the internet affects society, legally, politically and culturally. His leadership on the project involves two joint research areas. The first is on governance and regulation, that is, how the law interacts with internet.

The second, on virtual communities, examines the relationship between online and offline communities and how to design better online communities to help better community formation.

This second area of research has already had some profound policy impact with Professor Marsden chairing the very first international conference on internet science (10–11 April, Brussels), attended by European Commission officials among others.

Regulating code

He also recently published Regulating Code (MIT Press, 2013) in collaboration with computer scientist Ian Brown from the Oxford Internet Institute, an interdisciplinary research centre for the internet and society.

Regulating Code examines the relationship between the technology, software code and internet architecture and the law.

The authors suggest the need for a multi-stakeholder approach, where users as well as businesses and governments are represented, and that rather than simply being punitive there can be a more proactive approach to internet law that allows business and innovation to prosper while maintaining fundamental democratic rights.

The development of a new information law cluster at Sussex has seen the appointment of several lecturers, including Maria Mercedes Frabboni, Phoebe Li and Verona Ni Dhrisceoil, who join existing colleagues in the School of Law, Politics and Sociology.

Also, as a follow-up to the first internet science summer school for PhD students, held in Oxford in 2012, a second is planned for July 2013 in Annecy, France.

Because the internet and the idea of net neutrality impacts almost everyone and everything in modern life, there is huge scope at Sussex for developing interdisciplinary collaborations with the many research teams already working in digital media across the arts, science and social science, and to build on work done over the last 40 years, in particular by SPRU – Science and Technology Policy Research.

Chris's perspective

Chris Marsden, Professor of Media Law said: "Law and the internet have a dynamic interaction that is not well understood by governments, policymakers and many lawyers.

It is difficult to enforce laws on the internet because of its multinational engineering, but the internet does respond to law.

"Since the earliest discussions about regulation, internet engineers have been concerned about privacy and freedom of expression, as well as the interaction of engineering with law and economics, and the proper regulation of the public sphere.

"Even today, many public authorities find it hard to understand that laws must respond more efficiently to the internet's engineering in order to be more effective, and to protect and encourage citizens to make the most of its – and their – potential. This is at the heart of the internet science movement.

"I have been engaged in the discussion about appropriate public policy towards the internet for many years and recently joined the Law School in the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex because of its commitment to interdisciplinarity and the University's proven expertise in examining the interactions of technology and society.

"I look forward to furthering my research within the unique environment Sussex provides."