I moderated a panel this morning at the SXSW Interactive conference, on online dispute resolution, an appropriate topic for the techies who attend this event. I couldn't help mentioning to one of my panelists, Colin Rule, that the last time he had appeared remotely at another conference I attended, we encountered a glitch in the Skype connection which made him unable to hear the questions being posed. So I was glad to have Colin at my side and in person this morning. Coincidentally, a couple of days ago at this conference, the exact same problem was suffered by Julian Assange who, being holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, was only able to appear here by remote hookup.
The subject of technical glitches was on my mind this morning anyway after a movie screening I attended last night was canceled because they were not able to access the subtitles on the digital file. Then when I got to the green room before our session, I was unable to print out my outline because the printer ran out of toner. (Turned out it was probably good for me to be forced to read my notes from my laptop, however, proving that glitches sometimes encourage resourcefulness.)
After all that, I couldn't help but play the curmudgeon skeptical of technical innovations in dispute resolution, and forcing the other panelists to defend the efficacy of online systems. But while the disadvantages to conducting dispute resolution procedures via computer connection are real and are not limited to potential technical difficulties (these disadvantages can also include missing out on some non-verbal communication, and delays that sometimes occur in online communications), there are also significant advantages (convenience, cost savings, more efficient scheduling, and the ability to prepare considered statements in writing as opposed to statements that people sometimes regret making in face to face communication) to the use of technology.
Quite simply, online processes allow a lot of disputes to be mediated or arbitrated that would never be feasible to resolve in person, either because of geographical distances or cost considerations or other reasons. For small dollar value cases such as disputes between far-flung eBay buyers and sellers, online dispute resolution is a necessity. Moreover, since those kinds of disputes arose in the virtual world, it only makes sense that their resolution should take place in the same space. But even for larger cases, there may be significant advantages to conducting all or part of a dispute resolution process through the internet. The use of new online tools will also encourage new and more efficient solutions to the many problems that are encountered now in the real world, especially in multi-party and multi-jurisdictional disputes, including venue, choice of law, and enforcement. Technical difficulties will never be eliminated, either in the real or the virtual world, but automated processes are definitely improving, and probably solving more problems than they create. Online dispute resolution is here to stay.
Thanks to three excellent panelists, the other two being Beth Trent, Senior Vice President and Director of Programs with the Institute for Conflict Prevention and Resolution, and Jin Ho Verdonschot, a justice technology architect with HiiL Innovating Justice in the Hague.