Lawyers pay close attention to IT happenings

You’d
be surprised how much interest federal information technology issues raise among members
of the American Bar Association.


I know because I just got back from the ABA summer convention in Toronto. The ABA is
the largest voluntary bar association in the United States, and every summer, nearly
15,000 lawyers and their families descend on some North American city with enough hotel
rooms and expense account restaurants to accommodate the crowd.


Sessions at the recent gathering often included information of interest to government
IT professionals.


The venue where lawyers typically ponder procurement law is the Public Contract Law
Section, made up of government, industry and private practitioners. One program that would
interest GCN readers was a review of federal government commercial buying practices.


Nonlawyers, such as Frank Pugliese, commissioner of General Services
Administration’s Federal Supply Service, and Jim Berish, director of government
procurement policy at Hewlett-Packard Co., joined industry and government lawyers to
discuss how the Federal Acquisition Reform and Federal Acquisition Streamlining acts are
being implemented. We chewed on nitty-gritty issues such as the size and scope of
post-Brooks Act governmentwide acquisition vehicles.


We covered the tensions caused by industry’s desire to give government customers
only commercial warranties and the government’s demands for more.


The Criminal Justice Section focused on recent developments surrounding the Civil False
Claims Act [GCN, May 18, Page 24].
Given today’s wide-open contracting environment, that act could bite you.


Another panel covered computer software licensing and protection, in which a key issue
is the validity of licenses included with shrink-wrapped software.


The Science and Technology Section staged some of the most intriguing programs. First,
the general counsels of some of the hottest technology companies from around the country,
including Netscape Communications Corp., Lotus Development Corp. and Apple Computer Inc.,
were on a panel titled “Uneasy Heads.” The title may have been ambiguous, but
one of the assertions was not: “We are all high-tech lawyers, whether we know it or
not and whether we like it or not.”


What do vendors worry about—and hence drive their lawyers to distraction? For one
thing, protecting intellectual property. For another, they worry about which jurisdiction
holds sway when they do business on the Internet, with its lack of borders and, indeed,
lack of any logical boundaries.


Electronic commerce was a hot topic. One panel discussed the critical issue of who gets
paid and how for e-commerce. As the government’s level of e-commerce inevitably
rises, agencies will use trusted third parties for funds transfer and digital signatures.


Perhaps inevitably, attendees dove deeply into the legal aspects of date code computer
failures. The crowd was equally divided among those who hope year 2000 issues will yield a
bonanza of lawsuits, those positioning themselves to defend them and those who counsel
clients to fix their systems and avoid the whole thing.


Who could stay away from the session titled “Cyberterrorism, Industrial Espionage
and Crime on the Internet”? The key quote: “The weapons of the new millennium
may well be the modem and the semiconductor chip.” Certainly the Defense Department
and plenty of civilian agencies are familiar with those dangers. Participants, including
the FBI, debated balancing the needs of law enforcement and the needs of those in industry
whose use of encryption tools goes beyond the government’s ability to decode.


While the cyberterrorism panel met in one room, in another the ABA’s Criminal
Justice Section sponsored a session on the erosion of privacy in the information age. With
everyone communicating digitally, controversy over encryption technology and who can have
it is worsening.


The bottom line is that lawyers have really shifted their attention to the issues you
grapple with each day.


Still, this was a bar association gathering, not a technology conference. With all the
lawyers gathered, the ABA likes to stage mock trials. This year’s big lawsuit
concerned the sinking of the Titanic, an event that even now dwarfs the worst computer
systems failures. Whether your technology is iron, steel and steam or silicon, magnetics
and electrons, we lawyers aren’t far in the background.  


Stephen M. Ryan is a partner in the Washington law firm of Brand, Lowell &
Ryan. He has long experience in federal information technology issues. E-mail him at smr@blrlaw.com.

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