Online Dispute Resolution: Theory and Practice | A Treatise on Technology and Dispute Resolution

Till I received a PDF of the chapter I wrote for Online Dispute Resolution: Theory and Practice: A Treatise on Technology and Dispute Resolution as it appears in the tome, I had entirely forgotten about it. Ethan, Daniel and Mohamed are three of the finest minds in ODR today, and writing this chapter for them was how I wish it would be for every invitation to contribute to a book – exciting and fun. Glad the book’s now out and on Amazon. Sri Lanka’s postal service has eaten my first copy, but another I’ve been promised is on the way. Looking forward to reading the other chapters as well.

As I note in the start of my own, titled ‘Mobiles and ODR: Why We Should Care’,

The events earlier this year in Tunisia, Egypt, and other countries in the region commonly referred to as the Middle East were powerful markers of how information and communications technologies (ICTs) undergird struggles for democratic governance. It is not only these struggles they support. ICTs are in and of themselves mere tools, and are increasingly used by repressive governments for their own parochial ends, in stark opposition to those who seek to foster democracy and strengthen human rights. This is a double-edged sword, for the same ICTs that help bear witness and strengthen accountability are those that place activists at greater risk.

It is no different with mobile telephony and communications. The mobile phone is to many in this region as well as in my own region – South Asia – their first PC. Mobiles today are more capable in fact than average PCs were a few years ago. They are more pervasive, affordable and utilitarian. The mobile today is first a device for the exchange of information through text messages (SMS), including mobile commerce, and only then a device for voice conversations. In the case of smartphones, the mobile is even more akin to a PC, revolutionising in the vernacular as well as in English, the way content is consumed, disseminated and archived through text, video, audio and photography.

Few in the world of ICT for Development (ICT4D) saw this coming. Fewer in peacebuilding and conflict transformation saw the potential for mobiles even a few years ago. My Masters thesis and other academic writing at the time, based on my work in Sri Lanka using ICTs and mobiles to transform violent conflict, is still flagged as some of the first forays into what has today become a praxis and theory far more studied, yet perhaps still as misunderstood.

Peace Building in the Digital Era: 9th Forum on New Technologies of Information & Communication applied to Conflict

Since 2004, I have worked on and been involved in the interesting evolution of Online Dispute Resolution (ODR), in large part as a Fellow at The National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution, based at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. From once a strictly legal/commercial dispute resolution domain, ODR has now more fully embraced peacebuilding and the pivotal importance of mobiles, developments I can claim some degree of influence in shaping.

My last real world presentation on ODR was two years ago, in front of Vint Cerf as it turned out, envisioned the ways in which web, online, mobile and social networking platforms and technologies would transform the approach to and understanding of online dispute resolution.

In 2009, when the annual ODR Forum was held in Haifa, Israel, I did a Skype video call on how ICTs were helping peacebuilding and conflict transformation, and blogged about how the global financial downturn at the time called for a greater emphasis on and more innovation in ODR services and tools.

In June this year, the forum will be held in Argentina and is titled “Peace Building in the Digital Era”. The programme over two days in June looks very interesting, and will I am sure attract a high calibre of speakers and participants. I will be speaking on how new media and new technologies are helping redefine the theory and practice of peacebuilding. From the Iranian ‘Twitter revolution’ to post-election Kenyan crowd-sourcing and earthquake victim perspectives via mobiles in Haiti, the same ICTs used for repression, censorship and control are used to strengthen democracy, liberty and freedom. My presentation will explore these issues and events and extrapolate ideas for the application of ICTs in peacebuilding in the future.

A call for presentation is open until 30 March 2010. More details here and the principal subject areas, almost all of which I have written about on this blog, include:

  • ON LINE Dispute resolution
  • Organizational Conflicts Management
  • Training and Quality of ODR Service Providers
  • ODR News
  • Important Subjects in ODR field
  • New Technologies
  • Serious Games
  • Peace Building using web 2.0

I’m looking forward to this event a great deal.

A selection of key writing and presentations I’ve done over the years on ODR include:

The internet through mobiles: ODR solutions must follow?

Four years when Melissa and I published our paper on An Asian Perspective on Online Mediation, we were sort of mavericks in the Online Dispute Resolution community for even harbouring the thought that mobiles would dominate the field in less than a decade.

The resistance from the ancien régime was expected – hundreds of thousands of dollars had been invested in existing ODR systems for PCs. The architects, proponents and investors of these systems were not about to embrace new platforms, thin clients and web based services with open arms.

Just four years hence though, the facts are indubitable. As the Economist notes,

Mobile phones have proved to be a boon for the poor world. An extra ten mobile phones per 100 people in a typical developing country boosts growth in GDP per person by 0.8 percentage points, according to a recent study. Mobile-phone subscriptions in poorer countries accounted for just a quarter of the global stock in 2000, but had risen to three-quarters of the 4 billion total by the start of this year. The next challenge is to expand the use of mobile technology to access the internet. Despite huge strides in producing cheap netbooks that connect via mobile networks, the mobile phone may still provide the cheapest way to access the internet in the developing world.

I’ve already pointed out the direction ODR must go in if it is to leverage this explosive growth in mobiles and other key trends, including as the Economist confirms below the increasing footprint and low cost accessibility of mobile broadband.

Any takers?


Online identity: Real or fake for a reason?

The Economist has a short but effective write up about online identity based on a recent survey on ‘real names’ vs. pseudonyms in pen names.

We have wanted to encourage (not require) readers to use their real names when commenting on The Economist web site. Our hope is that increased use of real names will help the quality of online discussion. We recently conducted a survey to learn what our online readers thought about this.

You strongly objected to compulsory use of real names, and for some this is not advisable or safe. We agree with this response. You rightly reminded us that what looks like real names on the site may not be so. It is neither feasible or sensible for us to ask people to prove the ‘realness’ of their online names.

Some said they feel personally safe to use their own name, but worry for others’ safety and care for the candor and liveliness that safety makes possible. We received some insightful responses about the complexities of striving for freedom of speech, privacy and civility, among relative strangers online.

The question of identity online is more complex, and is inextricably entwined with issues of privacy, safety, security and also, hate speech, threats and defamation. I’ve dealt with the phenomenon of spiteful anonymous as well as very well known identities ever since I launched Groundviews. This vicious anonymity online also led to the closure of another citizen journalism site, Moju.

There are on the other hand positive examples of anonymity used for progressive, civil conversations. Pissu Poona on Facebook is a powerful example.

As David Pogue, the New York Times’ Tech Columnist avers:

The real shame, though, is that the knee-jerk ‘€œeveryone else is an idiot’€ tenor is poisoning the potential the Internet once had. People used to dream of a global village, where maybe we can work out our differences, where direct communication might make us realize that we have a lot in common after all, no matter where we live or what our beliefs.

But instead of finding common ground, we’€™re finding new ways to spit on the other guy, to push them away. The Internet is making it easier to attack, not to embrace.

Maybe as the Internet becomes as predominant as air, somebody will realize that online behavior isn’t just an afterthought. Maybe, along with HTML and how to gauge a Web site‒s credibility, schools and colleges will one day realize that there’s something else to teach about the Internet: Civility 101.

It’s this essential civility I encourage through the site guidelines on Groundviews, and why I also encourage identities online that, much like Mark Twain or Lewis Carroll, that over a period of time one associates with a particular style, substance, political analysis and interest. The nom de plumes becomes virtual identities, and many of the best read blogs in Sri Lanka also follow this model, though not always with the same degree of civility or quality of content.

I’ve also noticed that older people, especially older journalists, do not tolerate online monickers that are clearly not names, whereas younger audiences refer to each other by whatever labels that are associated by, and are only rarely concerned by, or poke fun at a handle / virtual identity.

I know of at least one book on constitutional reform that quotes at length from the submission of Publius to Groundviews, but also because this identity started out as completely anonymous, then chose to reveal his true identity as a well known constitutional lawyer in Sri Lanka whilst continuing to contribute to Groundviews under his pen name.

Particularly in the domain of Online Dispute Resolution (ODR), the issue of verifying the trust of online identities will be a challenge that must occupy system designers as well as those who wish to expand its domain. Digital natives who grow up with multiple identities online are ODR’s new disputants and conflict resolvers. How identity is seen and managed in this respect is fundamental to the design and implementation of ODR mechanisms and systems in corporate and other domains.

Online Dispute Resolution (ODR), the financial downturn and innovation

Tucked away recently in the Real Estate section of the New York Times was an article that resonated a great deal with the evolution of Online Dispute Resolution since 2004. The E-Mail Handshake is a fascinating take on how the current economic downturn is influencing modes of communication in real estate deals.

In the current market, with fewer apartments being sold and buyers waiting to scrape the bottom of the market, many brokers say that the immediacy of e-communication often helps them keep deals alive… Can a negotiation be conducted entirely via e-mail? How much and what kind of information can be shared online? Are there times when agents and clients should put their BlackBerrys away and pick up the telephone? Are exclamation points and smiley faces unprofessional?

These are questions that the ODR community has grappled with for years. While the article does not once mention ODR or demonstrates any interest in the resolution of disputes that may arise on account of miscommunication, this is an area rich in study and experience for the ODR community. There have been exhaustive studies on, for example, the intepretation of emoticons particularly between cultures. Again, as this paper notes,

It takes more than computer skill to be able to negotiate one’s interests successfully online. The notion that English serves as a neutral lingua franca is a dangerous myth. Although both disputants may seem fluent in English, natives and non-natives English users do not perform on a level playing-field. Many claim that English is the world language. But to describe English in such terms ignores the fact that a majority of the world’s citizens do not speak English, whether as a mother tongue or as a second or foreign language

And while the greatest minds involved in ODR suggest that avatars may help with negotiations, applications of ODR in the real world suggest that low-bandwidth, textual communications amongst stakeholders (e.g. email, SMS / texting) especially amongst relationships anchored to a one off business interest (e.g. a buyer and broker of a house) are far more common than the usage of full blown ODR systems.

The NYT article does note that, “One of the keys to a successful online negotiation is to make sure agents and clients have met to establish a relationship.” This may work well in real estate client – broker relationships, but in my own adaptations of ODR for more complex work in peace negotiations, this is not always possible or in fact desirable.

The article prompted me to think briefly about some topics I hope the up-coming annual ODR Forum, to be held in Haifa this year, will address.

  • I’ve gone into some detail about technologies I believe will define the evolution of ODR systems. Most ODR systems out there are and look really antiquated. They cannot for example leverage business opportunities that present themselves in the form of resolving disputes that arise in, and must be mediated in, the mobile domain (e.g. communications on Blackberry’s and iPhones). There is only one ODR system I know of today  – the Canadian engineered Smartsettle – that is being engineered to run on a iPhone. How can the industry be nudged to realise that there are business opportunities for innovative ODR solutions and mechanisms especially within the current global economic downturn?
  • Can ODR systems that leverage virtual face to face technologies, like synchronous or asynchronous video (from recorded video testimonials stored in and accessed from the cloud, to Skype and telepresence) be promoted as alternatives to expensive, inter-state or international travel?
  • Ushahidi offers some fascinating and near real time visualisations of ground conditions for various situations – from elections to refugees – along with seamless integration with mobile devices. Can this technology be leveraged for the resolution of some land and resource based conflicts? I believe it can, and I am actively working on a system based on Ushahidi to demonstrate just this.
  • FrontlineSMS offers today a remarkable technology called FrontlineForms, “FrontlineForms allows you to create copies of very simple paper forms on your computer, which can then be sent to a Java-enabled mobile phone through a text message. This phone can then be handed to staff or partners who can then take it to the field and enter the information they are required to collect directly onto the phone (by following a trimmed-down version of the on-screen form you have created for them). Once the data input is complete, the information collected can be sent back to FrontlineSMS as a compressed text message, giving you up-to-date and real-time information. Other solutions are available that provide data collection functionality, but many rely on data connectivity via the mobile phone network, or specialist devices or PDAs. FrontlineSMS does not, and only requires that you have a basic Java-enabled phone and a mobile signal. If forms are completed in an area where there is no signal they will be held in the phone until a signal is detected, after which they will be safely sent.” (Emphasis mine).
  • What implications will this technology have for ODR applications in developing countries (and even in North America)? Can one for example imagine the growth of one business model for ODR that adapts lightweight forms for data collection and dispute resolution amongst clients using only mobile devices, which as the NYT article suggests are in any case their primary means of communication?

Any other ideas? I am really sad to miss Orna, Ethan, Colin, Daniel, Ayo, Frank, Mohamed and others in Haifa, but I know they and others present at the meeting will discuss these issues in greater detail. I believe there is a heightened importance for effective and pervasive ODR in the current economic downturn, where it’s not just about cutting costs, its about getting the best value from existing assets. And that frankly means looking at mobiles and as the NYT articles highlights, new negotiation and communication models that are emerging as a result of changing times.

More innovation, not less, is called for.

In the company of giants: International Mediation Institute (IMI) and ICT4Peace

Diane Levin’s blog gives a pointer to the International Mediation Institute (IMI) and a special section on its web site to recognize the work of bloggers writing on ADR and ODR.

Diane Levin aside, there are giants in the field of ADR / ODR featured here. It’s humbling to be in the company of these blogs and bloggers, though I am perhaps the only person without any legal background or training to be featured here!

A little over two years ago, when I started this blog, it was the first and only one on the web to deal with ICT for peacebuilding. Today, it’s praxis and theory is no longer embryonic and there are hundreds of examples of the use of ICTs in everything from conflict early warning to mitigation and transformation.

My interest in ODR was piqued when I realised that the principles behind ADR and especially when technology was introduced as a fourth party shared many similarities with my approach to and understanding of ICTs in peacebuilding.

That’s an interest that will only continue to grow, nourished in large part by the inspiration found in the content of the blogs featured on IMI’s catalogue.

Net Neutrality: Economics and implications for ICT4Peace and ODR

A post on Lirneasia prompted some thought on the linkages between Net Neutrality and peacebuilding, especially the use of the web and Internet for conflict transformation. Lirneasia’s post deals with Obama’s and McCain’s stance on the issue of Net Neutrality, with Chanuka making the point that while theoretically desirable, Net Neutrality has its own significant costs.

A complementary article posted earlier on Lirneasia’s site itself points to an approach by Vint Cerf that provides useful food for thought on the Net Neutrality debate. Cerf’s agrees that broadband networks need to be managed, but he differs with Chanuka (and perhaps Lirneasia) on how. As opposed to usage based billing, Cerf proposes a transmission rate cap where users can “purchase access to the Internet at a given minimum data rate and be free to transfer data at at least up to that rate in any way they wish.” (Cerf’s original post on Google which fleshes this idea out can be read here). 

My concern here is with the appropriation of the Net Neutrality debate by ISPs – both State and Private – under repressive regimes to covertly clamp down on communications used by human rights defenders and peace activists. 

For example, I have been reliably told, though not verified, that a well-known ISP in Sri Lanka (not SLT) is blocking P2P traffic, including Skype. This creates significant problems for some HR org’s and activists on it who use Skype to communicate and collaborate securely. Ironically, some actually switched over to this ISP from SLT because they thought it afforded greater security and Quality of Service. EFF’s Switzerland tool, if Lirneasia or any other organisation ever get around to using it in SL, may offer some insight in this regard.

The point is quite simply this – net neutrality is not just about the minimum or maximum transmission rates, but about the way IP packets on a broadband pipe are managed. If ISPs, under their own misguided policies or those covertly imposed by a repressive regime begin to selectively prioritise and monitor traffic on their networks, it forces those who use the Internet for highly sensitive communications and advocacy to re-think the tools and services they access, and how. And sometimes, there’s no other option for tools used by HR defenders – as in the case of Skype. Despite recent concerns over privacy, there is no other encrypted, free and widely used VOIP tool. And once you start going down this path, it soon becomes clear that traffic discrimination can selectively target other tools, web services and platforms used by HR defenders against a regime to capture, generate, disseminate and archive inconvenient truths – such as human rights abuses. This includes video streaming sites like YouTube.

A final word on economics. As Ars Technica notes,

As unattended apps like P2P and network backup utilities tie up a portion of bandwidth for ever longer periods of time, the old solutions aren’t working as well and congestion is one result. Cerf’s idea would take us back to the old “circuit-switched” days in the sense that each Internet user would instead get a guaranteed line with a minimum guaranteed rate at all times. This would answer consumer complaints about “not getting what I paid for,” but would cost ISPs more cash.

Emphasis mine. Lirneasia’s research in Sri Lanka suggest deplorable QoS across all “broadband” ISPs. Not a single ISP in Sri Lanka guarantees minimum transmission speeds and often advertise speeds that paying customers simply don’t get, or even come close to. Convincing them to upgrade their networks to go down the path Cerf suggest may be impossible, given how enticing the economics of a metered data transmission model looks and sounds, on paper. 

The problem of course is that this doesn’t address the problem of pissant data rates for all. A pay-for-megabyte model will see that though the heaviest users pay up (corporate consumers) and the economic disincentive for individuals to become high volume users will simply not be enough to improve transmission speeds (particularly if, as I suspect, our ISPs will do little or nothing to improve network capacity). The net result will quite simply be more or less the same old, glacial data transfer rates which will anger even more those who can are willing to pay more (like myself) for better connectivity. 

There’s one ISP in the UK offering something I’ve not seen anywhere else – a meaningful IP traffic prioritisation / management plan. It’s from Plusnet. Check it out here. Their explanation uses the same metaphor as Chanuka uses in his Lirneasia post,

Think of it this way, the broadband network is like a motorway. When the traffic is light, all vehicles can move at the national speed-limit. Some lanes of the motorway have been reserved for important traffic, such as buses or emergency vehicles. During rush hour, most vehicles are forced to slow down. However, the traffic on the reserved lanes can continue to travel at their full speed.

Google itself has promised a tool that helps end-users / consumers to see how ISPs manage traffic. No date for the release of the tool, but a more user friendly Switzerland or Google’s tool would be a huge asset for those of us who use the Internet for peacebuilding and ODR, if only to see which ISP we should avoid.

Update – 5 September 2008

Comcast, the cable operator and ISP in the US at the centre of the Net Neutrality debate, has sued the FCC over a decision it made on Comcast’s network management techniques. Ars Technica has the story here.