Innovator in Online Dispute Resolution Continues Quest for New Processes
“UMass Amherst has been an innovator in the field of legal studies in general, especially in areas related to law and technology,” says Ethan Katsh, professor of legal studies and director of the Center for Information Technology and Dispute Resolution (CITDR). “For those who are interested in these areas, there is no better place to be.” Although he is quick to spread credit among his colleagues, there is no doubt that Katsh has been a major player in moving both entities forward to the national reputations they hold in teaching and research today.
Selected this year to deliver one of four Distinguished Faculty Lectures, Katsh also received the Chancellor’s Medal, the highest honor bestowed by UMass Amherst on individuals for exemplary and extraordinary service to UMass Amherst. His lecture “Law in a Digital World: New Processes for an Age of Conflict and Change” was presented on October 25.
Katsh’s career has been somewhat unusual in that he has spent all of it since his graduation from Yale Law School in 1970 at UMass Amherst. “What I have done professionally has certainly not been the result of a careful plan,” he says. “The technologies I study and write about did not even exist when I began teaching here.” What has been consistent, Katsh notes, is that colleagues in the Legal Studies Department and the UMass Amherst environment in general have allowed—and indeed encouraged—him to engage in innovative and interesting activities.
“The whole idea behind the legal studies department, quite novel when it was created in 1973,” Katsh explains, “is that it is as appropriate to teach undergraduates about law as it is to teach them about economics, anthropology and other behavioral and social sciences. I benefited greatly from being associated with others eager to experiment and supportive of each other in intellectual ventures. In my own case, my colleagues understood almost from the beginning, unlike most law schools at the time, that the Internet and information technologies would be a major influence on law.”
In the past, Katsh explains, the law had been looked at in many ways: as a system of rules or processes; as a mechanism for promoting justice—or injustice; as a means of protecting liberties or resolving disputes. “At some point,” he recalls, “I realized that information and communication were central to all legal processes. Even in the mid-1980s, it seemed clear that everything involving information and communication was likely to change. It was not much of a leap to figure out that new technologies for communicating and processing information would have a significant impact on the law.” What this impact would be and how it would occur have been Katsh’s central concerns for nearly two decades since then.
The other insight Katsh had, just about a ten years after that first light-bulb moment, concerned the Internet and conflict resolution. “As the Web grew in use and ecommerce was getting started,” he recalls, “it became clear that the Internet would not be a harmonious environment. There was too much activity, too many transactions and interactions, too many relationships being formed not to have high-levels of disputes.” Less obvious, he says, was that online resources could be used to help parties resolve their differences. The field of online dispute resolution is based on the idea that all dispute resolution processes involve communication, and therefore they can be assisted by software and information processing.
“It is difficult,” says Katsh, who was founder and co-director of the Online Ombuds Office, “to work in the field of law and technology and not be drawn into policymaking processes.” More specifically, research into disputes arising out of online activities led him and Janet Rifkin, now Dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, to found the Center for Information Technology and Dispute Resolution (CITDR) in 1997 with support from the Hewlett Foundation. Involved in both research and applications, CITDR led a major project for eBay which, using Katsh’s approach, created processes to resolve over four million disputes during the past five years. Currently, CITDR, along with the UMass Computer Science Department and supported by a National Science Foundation grant, is working with the National Mediation Board, a federal agency, to help resolve disputes involving airline and railroad employees and unions. Katsh also points out that CITDR has recently completed its ninth annual Cyberweek, an all-online conference in which this year more than 400 individuals in about 40 countries participated in all-online discussions, podcasts, skypecasts and other interactions in virtual worlds.
Katsh notes that through the SBS Science and Technology Initiative, in which CITDR plays a large part, and the National Center for Digital Government, directed by Jane Fountain, the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences is in the forefront of efforts to understand the impact of new technologies on society. He foresees increasing demand for online dispute resolution in all scientific areas in which the pace of innovation is increasing. In fact, CITDR currently is working with the Center for Hierarchical Manufacturing, the on-campus recipient of a large nanotechnology grant from NSF, to design a workshop on dispute resolution challenges related to its work.
“Managing CITDR is almost a full-time job, because it involves research efforts, applying for grants and guiding the field of online dispute resolution,” says Katsh, who is currently involved in efforts to greatly expand CITDR. He has written three books on law and technology: Law in a Digital World (Oxford University Press, 1995); The Electronic Media and the Transformation of Law(Oxford University Press, 1989); and, with Rifkin, Online Dispute Resolution: Resolving Conflicts in Cyberspace (Jossey-Bass, 2001). Katsh’s articles have appeared in the Yale Law Journal, the University of Chicago Legal Forum, and other law reviews and legal periodicals. As chair of a United Nations-affiliated Expert Group on ODR, he has coordinated four International Online Dispute Resolution Forums in Geneva, Melbourne and Cairo.. Katsh also is on the Board of Advisors of the Democracy Design Workshop, serves on the legal advisory board of the InSites E-governance and Civic Engagement Project, and is a fellow of the American Bar Foundation, an honorary organization of attorneys, judges and law professors whose careers have demonstrated outstanding dedication to the welfare of their communities and to the highest principles of the legal profession.
October 4, 2006, updated October 26, 2006