This post originally appeared in the Internet Newsletter for Lawyers. Image: Robert S. Donovan, Flickr.

Data are – or is – everything and everywhere, flowing through everyday life, our workplaces, our homes and our minds. Social, political and legal activity is documented and controlled through digital information records, affecting all UK citizens, even those who have never used the internet or a mobile phone. The question of how data and information are regulated and used is clearly important, and a priority for policymakers, but how to study it?

That is the challenge for the new Centre for Law and Information Policy at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies which will launch officially in late February 2015. It is concerned with the law and policy of information and data, and will explore the ways in which law both restricts and enables the sharing and dissemination of different types of information. We have already identified research themes and topics that deserve particular attention, but will remain flexible in our scope, as new technology develops and as human behaviour changes.

We have lined up an excellent Advisory Board to help us in this task, which includes specialist legal and policy practitioners and academics, including Christopher Millard, Professor of Privacy and Information Law, Centre for Commercial Law Studies, Queen Mary University of London; Lilian Edwards, Professor of E-Governance, Strathclyde Law School; Timothy Pitt-Payne QC; Graham Smith, Partner, Bird & Bird; and Jeni Tennison, Technical Director, Open Data Institute. The board will be chaired by James Michael, Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies.

Thus far we have identified two main areas of interest: first, the way that data and information are used (accessed, owned, controlled and shared) in contemporary society and the law and policy that regulates this; second, the way that data about law is communicated and distributed (for example, from courts). We will also be interested in trends in scholarly communication, as they relate to legal studies.

The Centre’s aim is to promote and facilitate multi- and inter-disciplinary law and policy research, in collaboration with a variety of national and international institutions. This fits well with the goals of our parent institution: the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (IALS) within the School of Advanced Study (SAS) at the University of London. IALS’ role is “to conduct research; to promote and facilitate, within London and nationally and internationally, research and scholarship at an advanced level across the whole field of law; to disseminate the results of such research and scholarship” and SAS is a “national, and critically, neutral research hub“.

In this spirit, our launch event on 24 February 2015 will showcase research activity from other institutions. An academic research workshop, entitled “Information flows and dams”, will bring together scholars from a number of different institutions working on information law and policy topics, at a range of established research units such as the Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Law, University of Cambridge; the Centre for Commercial Law Studies, Queen Mary, University of London; the Cyber Security Centre, University of Oxford; and the Centre for Information Rights, University of Winchester. As well as hearing academics’ reflections and findings from current projects, we will discuss the most pressing issues for research on information law and policy.

The workshop will hear from, among others: Richard Danbury, Research Associate, University of Cambridge, on “copyright and the flow of news”; Marion Oswald, Senior Fellow, University of Winchester, on “information warfare and privacy vigilantism”; Asma Vranaki, Post-doctoral Researcher, Queen Mary University of London, on “the rise of cloud investigations by European data protection authorities”; and Ian Brown, Professor of Information Security and Privacy, University of Oxford, on “dimensions of cybersecurity”.

Timothy Pitt-PayneThis will be followed by an evening talk by a leading barrister in information rights, Timothy Pitt-Payne QC, 11KBW, who specialises in data protection, freedom of information, access to environmental information, RIPA, human rights issues, privacy, and breach of confidence. He will explore the legal and social implications for the control of privacy in the digital age. “Scepticism about privacy – in particular, about information privacy – is widespread,” he says. “It takes many different forms. For instance, it is often said that, in modern conditions, there can be no such thing as privacy; or that the generation that has grown up with the internet and social media is not interested in privacy. Even those who recognise that there is some value in privacy will often accept that it is readily outweighed by other considerations: for example, safeguarding national security, protecting vulnerable groups, or making public administration more efficient.” Pitt-Payne’s lecture will discuss whether privacy still matters to us, and if so, whether we have the right legal tools to protect it.

We hope the launch event will stimulate lively discussions to guide the early stages of the Centre’s development. Once launched, we intend to develop research proposals (some small, some bigger), explore opportunities for teaching and training, and host further discussions and presentations. We will also develop a network of researchers and practitioners in the field and resources to support their work, at the IALS library and on the Centre’s web pages.

To reiterate, data are – or is – everything and everywhere. That statement also raises one trivial but divisive issue that we probably need to resolve early on. Is the word data plural or singular? Should we stick to tradition, like the Economist’s style guide and explore how data flow, or follow publications such as the Guardian and the BBC, and examine how data flows? That, I suspect, will be one of the easier decisions to make in our navigation of information law and policy in the 21st century.

Judith Townend is Director of the Centre for Law and Information Policy at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies.