Conflict is a growth industry: we can’t rely on our courts to handle the huge volume of online disputes any more


Professor Ethan Katsh, Director of the National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution


Arnau Izaguerri Vila, UNCTAD

Policymakers and analysts reveal new ways for consumers to access justice in the internet age

10 November 2017

As we all shop online more than ever before, new forms of online dispute are becoming an increasing problem for today's consumers, and the risks of exposure to scams and rogue traders are at an all-time high.

To address this growing ‘digital justice gap’, we invited an international group of experts from the UN, consumer representatives, and academia to consider how to overcome the failure of traditional legal institutions to adequately serve this new digital world of cross-border commerce.

The roundtable discussion was opened at Wolfson College earlier this week by the authors of a new book on Digital Justice – Professor Ethan Katsh, Director of the National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution, and Dr Rabinovich-Einy, Faculty of Law, University of Haifa – who illustrated the overwhelming magnitude of the problem, with Chinese internet commerce giant Alibaba handling over 100 million disputes alone.

As Professor Katsh indicated: “Conflict is a growth industry: we can’t rely on our courts to handle the huge volume of online disputes any more.”

Dr Orna Rabinovich-Einy emphasized the importance that new systems of dispute resolution are easy to use, accessible, and fair, and demonstrated the benefits of online dispute handling mechanisms, which can offer much more transparency and openness than traditional court-based processes.

Access to justice was evolving from a concept born of the need to enable more people from lower socio-economic backgrounds to access the courts, to a theory that could account for the changing nature of disputes in the internet age. Besides greater transparency, the use of ‘big data’ enables better monitoring of the quality of the resolution procedure and offers more proactive redress, since common problems can be identified across wide datasets and tackled at source.

Dr Rabinovich-Einy questioned how open social media giants like Facebook and Twitter are to revealing how they deal with abuse and disputes, arguing that we only know what they choose to tell us, and that a whole new environment for regulation has to be catered for. In concluding, she noted the recommendations of Lord Justice Briggs in his review of civil justice, including the creation of an online court to deal with small claims worth up to £25,000, which she saw as encouraging signs of an evolution toward a public model of online dispute resolution (ODR).

Professor Pablo Cortés from the University of Leicester threw further light on recent developments in ODR, describing its adoption by policymakers across Europe with both the ODR Regulation and ADR Directive of 2013, and revealing the latest scheme for an ‘Online Court’ that was being piloted as a means to test alternatives to the traditional small claims court.

The question of how such online resolution efforts may affect the confidence and trust of consumers was taken up by Dr Ying Yu from the Faculty of Law at Oxford, examining how the efficiency of e-commerce giant Alibaba’s handling of consumer disputes had been a large factor in its phenomenal growth.

Arnau Izaguerri Vila, Legal Officer at the UN Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) gave further evidence of the importance of fostering consumer confidence in developing countries in particular. He cited research showing that the most common reason for people not to shop online is a lack of trust – which is a significant problem for developing countries that aspired to increase online commerce as part of their policies of economic development.

Distrust of cross-border redress, lack of clarity on protections afforded, and lack of cross-border cooperation are significant obstacles to e-commerce in developing countries.

Anna Glayzer, Advocacy Manager at Consumers International offered an illuminating account of the consumer perspective, bring to light the lack of awareness and understanding of issues such as how to protect your personal data, prevent identity theft and other such risks that consumers are exposed to when shopping online.

She forecast that the problem would become exacerbated in the future with the growth of the ‘internet of things’ – the growing prevalence of connected devices that harvest vast stores of personal information and are controlled by remote decision-makers or mere algorithms rather than the owner of the device and the personal data in question.

Drawing on recent high-profile examples, she demonstrated that compensation is by no means always available to consumers whose rights have been infringed, and is usually only honoured if there is a reputational risk to the company when the media brings the injustice to the attention of the wider public. Consumer education and awareness-raising remain crucial aspects of any efforts to improve policies and change public perceptions around the issue.

Dr Janet Hui Xue from the Sydney Cyber Security Network closed the roundtable discussion with her presentation on cybersecurity law in China and the limits of transparency in e-commerce dispute resolution, before a final question and answer session with the workshop attendees, who demonstrated a wide range of expertise.

Podcasts from the day’s discussions will be available to download from our Podcasts pages over the coming week.