Dr. Pieter Wolters, Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, Radboud University
Digital technologies are transforming society, shaping the experiences and potential decisions of individuals and organisations. Yet the digitalisation of society comes with both beneficial and detrimental consequences. Breaches to personal data protection and failures of online platforms to respect basic rights of their users are examples of the latter. In this article, we speak to an expert to understand what he wishes everyone knew about the law governing the digitalisation of society.
Dr. Pieter Wolters is an Associate Professor at the Department of Private Law at Radboud University, Nijmegen. Having studied at Radboud University’s Faculty of Law, only a few years later Wolters now works at the institute training future legal scholars and practitioners in his role as expert of privacy, cybersecurity and private law – that is, the field of law that concerns legal relations between non-government entities, such as individuals and companies.
Speaking about his motivation to become a legal scholar, Wolters says, “I have always had an interest in the law as I enjoy analysing rules. During my PhD, my research focused on how we can better understand complex and uncertain open norms, such as a reasonableness, in the context of the law”. While he considered going into legal practice, he was convinced to stay in academia as he saw it as an opportunity to grapple with new challenges that directly impact society. “A lot of work that we do as legal scholars includes analysing how the law works and understanding what requirements are created by specific situations. This is obviously of interest to practitioners too, so I see the distinction between legal scholar and practitioner to be not as wide as some may think.”
One particular challenge that motivates Wolters is examining the impact of digital technology on individuals and companies, and the (legal) opportunities and obstacles that arise from the digitalisation of our society. “You're never without something to study. Because technology changes so fast, there are always new, interesting developments or rules.”
"In the end, legal rules do not mean anything unless someone is willing to enforce them”
Yet while almost every person benefits from technology each day, whether it be through knowledge obtained via the internet or connecting with others through social media, many do not know about important legal principles related to their online behaviour. Asked what he wishes every person knew about his field of research, Wolters says, “Many things that happen online are clear violations of the law. The internet is no longer a place where anything goes, and where scammers are free to do whatever they want. I would want more people to know that relevant legal rules do exist, and that they can exercise their rights. In the end, legal rules do not mean anything unless someone is willing to enforce them.”
But what role should the law, and legal scholars like Wolters, play in the development of digital technologies? “I'm not that arrogant of a lawyer to think that lawyers can adequately decide how digitalisation should be shaped. At the same time, I also don't think that law should be reactive, and that we should wait for problems to arise before looking at them and developing solutions. In between these two extremes, there are interests or values that we know are important throughout our legal system that should be applied to the development of technology.”
Using the example of illegal online content, Wolters explains that we know that some content can cause harm and is illegal. Thus, we don’t need to wait for online platforms to solve disputes themselves. Instead, scholars like Wolters and his colleagues help think about how to better regulate and put rules in place that can help effectively solve issues before (and as) they arise.
However, this is not without challenges and Wolters highlights two particular obstacles that exist for those like him who try to apply legal norms in a digital context. Firstly, developing norms takes time. More particularly, it can take some time before a problem becomes apparent and finds its way to our courts. “Because digitalisation is progressing so fast, a problem may be irrelevant by the time it is resolved by a court”, says Wolters. Secondly, as digital issues are relatively complex, the development of appropriate norms is sometimes hampered by a lack of understanding by those in the legal field. Wolters notes that it is becoming harder for lawyers and judges to clearly understand problems and come up with potential solutions.
“By working with academics across disciplines, you are able to better understand issues at hand and come to more nuanced conclusions that take into account all aspects related to digitalisation”
For these reasons, he emphasizes the value and importance of interdisciplinary work. “By working with academics across disciplines, you are able to better understand issues at hand and come to more nuanced conclusions that take into account all aspects related to digitalisation”. As an example of his own efforts in this regard, in addition to being a member of the Radboud Center for Decision Science, he is also part of the iHub – an interdisciplinary research hub at Radboud University – where he works with researchers from other fields, including computer scientists, to better understand techniques related to digitalisation. “Only when you truly understand problems, can you say something relevant and nuanced about what legal obligations should be imposed on digital technologies”.
Similarly, Wolters mentions the importance of working with those who understand behaviour and choice, for example in Management and Psychology, to examine the impact of digitalisation on society. “Let's say I conclude that a legal obligation exists for people to take greater care of their own cybersecurity. In the end, we might see that this obligation is seldomly fulfilled, and even more rarely enforced. Then it may be relevant to work with behavioural scientists on questions such as: Why don’t companies fulfil their obligations? Why don't people take steps to enforce their rights?”. He concludes that by working with those in different fields he is able to better understand the full consequences of legal norms and conclusions.
“Radboud University has always given me the freedom to learn new things, take on new challenges, and just generally follow my interests.
For these reasons, Radboud University has proved to be an ideal environment for Wolters. “Radboud University has always given me the freedom to learn new things, take on new challenges, and just generally follow my interests. Furthermore, I’ve had the pleasure of working with wonderful colleagues, ranging from PhD students to more senior members, both at the Law Faculty and at the iHub”, says Wolters.
While technology continues to transform society, the existence, scope and actual enforcement of obligations on digital technologies remain important questions still to be addressed. Moreover, whether the framework that is being created by an increase in obligations will be effective is what Wolters believes to be at the heart of issues that will shape the future of our (digitalized) society. Without legal scholars like him we may not fully understand the effects of digitalisation or how we can help steer digital transformations in ways where important interests are protected.
To learn more about Pieter Wolters and his work at Radboud University, visit:
This article was written by Sarah Vahed
(Program Manager, Radboud Center for Decision Science)