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“Digitalisation is shaking the law to its foundations”

Der Jurist Dirk Heckmann setzt auf Kreativität, um ein so dynamisches Feld wie die Digitalisierung zu gestalten. Entscheidend dabei sei auch die interdisziplinäre Zusammenarbeit, wie sie das bidt ausmacht.

„It's nonsense what you're doing – this internet is a trend that will pass quickly.“

Dirk Heckmann heard such sayings for years. The law professor and bidt director was one of the first lawyers in Germany to recognise the importance of the internet in the mid-1990s, which at that time was still accessed via beeping modems.

Dirk Heckmann gave his first lecture on internet law as early as 1997 – albeit for the computer science faculty at the University of Passau. Today, Dirk Heckmann holds the Chair of Law and Security of Digitalisation at the Technical University of Munich and is a member of bidt’s board of directors.

When he looks back, he remembers well that he had it anything but easy as a pioneer in his field. And although technological development has proven him right, he speaks of a great “stroke of luck” that came his way back then: “I was simply lucky that a research area arose for my new chair in Passau that I could help shape from the very beginning.” He sees his creative streak as decisive for this – originally, he didn’t want to study law, but piano and become a composer. Now, even as a lawyer, the internet opened up the chance for him to “create something: It was the opportunity to be creative. That fascinated me immensely.”

New role for the law

For law, the internet and its underlying technologies pose enormous challenges. “Digitalisation brings changes that shake the law to its foundations,” says Dirk Heckmann.

Functions that law used to have in society, such as balancing interests or resolving conflicts, are now being taken over by technologies as a result of digitalisation. “Code is law’, as Lawrence Lessig put it back in 1999,” adds Dirk Heckmann.

Possible legal violations can thus be partially prevented in advance through technical solutions. For example, in the case of copyright: technologies such as upload filters automate the enforcement of the law to a certain extent, since it is no longer possible to upload copyrighted content to the internet. Heckmann knows that this in turn is legally and also ethically problematic and is working on solutions that are compatible with the common good.

This also changes the role of lawyers.

Prof. Dr. Dirk Heckmann To the profile

“It is no longer a matter of punishing infringements, but of preventing them from the outset,” says Dirk Heckmann, who is familiar with the role of a robed judge himself, as he has been a part-time constitutional judge at the Bavarian Constitutional Court since 2003.

“The task for lawyers today is no longer to judge in a repressive way, but to help shape a system in a preventive way. Therefore, the training for lawyers must also change.” In an interview, Dirk Heckmann once pleaded for “making the reality of life the subject of legal training”.

At the University of Passau, where Dirk Heckmann held the Chair of Public Law, Security Law and Internet Law from 1996 to 2019, he initiated the subject of Internet Law and established the Research Centre for IT Law and Network Policy (For..Net) and the Institute for IT Security and Security Law ISL.

Early on, the lawyer focused on interdisciplinary cooperation and research, which also characterises the work of bidt. He has worked with computer scientists from the very beginning and also, for example within the framework of the DFG Research Training Group “Privacy and Digitisation”, with colleagues from disciplines such as media and cultural studies, philosophy and sociology.

How to regulate the dynamics of the internet?

Dirk Heckmann is committed to shaping digitisation in a way that is oriented towards the common good. As a member of the German government’s data ethics commission, he warned against the “total digital surveillance” of people. “Digitisation has both perspectives. On the one hand, there are, for example, business models, including dishonest ones, that are based on the exploitation of personal data. But there are also many opportunities to process data for the benefit of all, for example in the health sector. Here, better diagnoses and therapies can be achieved by analysing large amounts of data.”

When it comes to the question of regulating digital technologies, Dirk Heckmann reacts rather cautiously.

Regulations are always snapshots. This contrasts with extremely dynamic developments.

Prof. Dr. Dirk Heckmann To the profile

“The law has a tendency to persist, something static – that’s right, you can’t keep changing the legal system. But the internet and technologies like artificial intelligence are highly dynamic,” the lawyer explains. “What exactly should be in an AI law, for example, which is repeatedly demanded?”

That doesn’t mean you can’t make laws any more, but they have to be agile forms.

This could include developing guidelines for technical standards, for example via collaboration platforms in which industry representatives, technical experts and IT lawyers, among others, ensure that the political will and all legal requirements are sufficiently reflected by the automated processes.

At the same time, the steering power of the law is lost because the internet is global and there are different national legal systems. “This works analogue, but leads to contradictions in the digital space. Dilemmas arise and there is an incredible need for design and new solutions – this is a highly creative task,” says Dirk Heckmann. He is convinced that it will be possible to shape the digital transformation and curb possible negative developments.

Dirk Heckmann is very open to technological developments, including digital media, and not only out of research interest. He is very well networked, has many followers on Twitter as @elawprof and supported the German government’s hackathon #WirvsVirus as a mentor. Dirk Heckmann still says of himself that he is “not a typical lawyer”. He says he was “extremely lucky” because he got to the very place where he benefits from his creativity “via the great diversions of law”.

The appointment to the chair at TUM in 2019 and to the interdisciplinary board of directors of bidt are the best thing that could have happened to him: “I’m more or less at home now”.