Why computing students should learn about law
So why should computing students want to learn about law?
What IT employers are looking for
Well, students who pick computing to study (whether it is called computer science, information systems, “informatics”, or whatever) mostly choose it because they hope it will lead to an IT-related job. And that job won’t involve just sitting in a back room hacking code. Jobs like that disappeared with the 20th century, if they have not been offshored to India or elsewhere.
Today’s jobs for British computing graduates are about using technical knowledge to help a business or public-sector organization flourish. They are about business savvy as much as about bits and bytes. As Ian Campbell, Chairman of the Corporate IT Forum, recently put it: “the future will be IT lite, with technology departments staffed by… people with higher levels of commercial awareness and lower levels of technical expertise”. This is why computing students should also need to know about the kinds of legal problem which is likely to cross their path during their career. In this article you can gain a first insight into this topic – written by Geoffrey Sampson, research fellow at the University of South Africa.
There’s no need to take Ian Campbell’s word for it. In Britain, the body which lays down standards for the IT profession under royal charter is the British Computer Society. The BCS accredits computing degrees, provided it is satisfied that the degree curriculum is up to scratch. In judging that, the BCS lays special stress on the need for substantial elements of what it calls “LSEPI”: legal, social, ethical, and professional issues. Thus the first letter of LSEPI is for law.
Knowing where problems can arise
This doesn’t mean that a computing graduate is expected to have the details of all the latest statutes at his or her fingertips. Of course not: technology companies, like any other company, consult professional lawyers when a specific problem arises. What the computing graduate does need is a grasp of the broad legal environment in which his or her organization (together with its trading partners, its customers, and its competitors) are operating. He or she needs a sense of where legal problems are likely to arise, and how the still-young legal framework applying to IT is developing.
Think how it is in our private lives. Most of us don’t need a detailed knowledge of the law of contract – but we certainly do need to be aware that our signature on a document is capable of creating a binding commitment.
All human life is there
A further reason to learn about law is that it is actually a lot of fun. Unfairly, law has a reputation for being a dry subject – but UK law is largely about precedents set by particular past cases, so understanding the law as it is today means looking at the pickles that various specific individuals and organizations got into in the past, and how they were resolved.
What is more, the laws that matter to the IT industry are mostly not special IT-related laws. There are some of those, but in the main the laws affecting our profession are much more general, so that leading cases can turn out to come from very diverse areas of life. To understand the legal implications of harmful software, we need to learn about what happened when Mrs Voss found a caterpillar in the tin of peas she bought at Tesco’s in 1974. To grasp how law struggles to regulate a fast-changing technology, the best precedent is the history of legal battles with pornographers. In a way that is true of no other courses taught in computing departments: all human life is there.
Introduction to law for computing students is freely downloadable
The textbook Law for Computing Students, by Geoffrey Sampson, aims to give undergraduates the level of knowledge they need to make them attractive as candidates for jobs in the IT industry, in a readable and enjoyable fashion. It is written primarily for students on computing degrees, and assumes no prior legal knowledge at all.
The main focus is on the law as it applies to England and Wales, but EU membership means that this includes aspects of European law, and the commercial dominance of the USA requires British companies to have some awareness of American regulations – all these things are given a due share of attention.
Apart from describing the present state of the law, the book aims to give readers a sense of which directions IT law is tending to evolve in, and of the external pressures that are bringing about developments in the law. Many people already working in the IT industry will find material to interest them here.