UMass Amherst Professors Establish Center to Study Dispute Resolution in Cyberspace

AMHERST, Mass. - Two professors at the University of Massachusetts, using nearly $300,000 in foundation grants, are searching the frontiers of cyberspace to find out how disputes that arise there can be settled online.

Ethan Katsh and Janet Rifkin, both professors of legal studies, will co-direct a new UMass Center for Information Technology and Dispute Resolution, using a two-year $200,000 grant from the Hewlitt Foundation and a one-year $99,410 grant from the National Center for Automated Information Research (NCAIR).

The new center will focus on understanding the nature of those online conflicts and on developing new tools for working with parties involved in disputes. Working through its web site, the center will also examine conflicts that arise out of the rapid growth of the web, and explore opportunities provided by the web to resolve disputes without litigation.

"The Internet is a fascinating and attractive environment," said Katsh. "But like any environment where a lot is going on and where things happen quickly, disputes are likely to occur."

The new center grows out of a year-long pilot project, the Online Ombuds Office, which was also funded by the NCAIR to deal with online disputes. "During the year," Rifkin said, "we worked with about 40 disputes, ranging from a web site developer who was feuding with a local newspaper, to a software developer and his client, to individuals whose service was terminated by Internet service providers."

The center expects to work with individuals and with state and governmental agencies, corporations, schools, and non-profit groups that are increasingly using the Internet to interact with citizens and customers.

"Anyone doing business online or offering a service online should be thinking not only of how many people will use the service, but of what the potential is for disputes and how those disputes will be handled," Katsh said. "Some resulting disputes will probably end up in court, but, in general, litigation is too slow, too costly, and often counterproductive for both sides."

Katsh is the author of two books on law and computers and Rifkin has been a mediator and has served as the University ombudsperson.

"We look for the center to bring the fields of technology and dispute resolution together," Rifkin said, "and to show how the power of the network can be used to repair relationships and build new ones. If online casinos, shopping malls, and conference centers can be designed, we should also be able to design online institutions for problem-solving."

In addition to providing resources for online dispute resolution, the center intends to pursue research into many of the novel issues raised by the Internet. "When one is online," Rifkin said, "the computer screen is the environment. And that raises some complicated issues. For example, often the gender of an individual is hidden and it is easy to hide one’s true identity. We need to learn what are the limits and potential for mediating when people aren’t brought face-to-face."