Legal issues could impede the march of the Semantic Web

25 Nov 2009

Legal challenges around the area of data protection and defamation are likely to raise their head with the arrival of the Semantic Web, the next version of the World Wide Web, or Web 3.0 to some.

Speaking at an event hosted by the Irish Software Association, the Digital Enterprise Research Institute (DERI) and Mason Hayes+Curran today, Philip Nolan, partner at business law firm Mason Hayes+Curran, outlined the legal and business issues relating to the Semantic Web, the next evolution of the World Wide Web.

What is the Semantic Web?

“The Semantic Web is essentially about making data smarter and linking that data up,” Nolan explained. “This vision of a web of data instead of the current ‘web of documents’ is seen by backers of the Semantic Web as the core aspect of Web 3.0, the next generation of the World Wide Web.

“From a legal perspective, while many aspects of the Semantic Web are uncontroversial, there are some features which do give rise to identifiable legal challenges, primarily around data protection and defamation.

“Irish companies who use the internet to interface with their customers and the public will need to keep abreast of these developments as these issues apply to a range of industries, including the public sector, financial services, media and healthcare sectors; given that organisations in all these industries hold personal data,” Nolan said at the event, which will be podcast on at a later date.

Working with data

Nolan said that from a data-protection perspective, one of the main aims of the Semantic Web is to make data easier to process and re-use.

“This leads to the question however, what becomes of the protection of personal data in such an open, universally accessible web of interlinked data? This is particularly important because Semantic Web applications are likely to be far more effective than traditional search engines at piecing together personal information, thus increasing the risk of identity theft,” Nolan added.

At the event, Nolan discussed the requirement for safeguards to protect user data, as well as policies to ensure people understood how their information would be used.

He also highlighted risks of inadvertently defaming individuals and of publishing incorrect data as Semantic Web technologies dig much deeper into data than traditional search engines.

Potential for limited scope

Legal implications could potentially limit the scope of such semantic-based applications.

“There is the risk, however, that the resulting information may be false or misleading. For example, consider Powerset, an online semantic application which extracts data from Wikipedia. If I enter the search term ‘Lee Harvey Oswald’, one of the first statements that crops up is ‘killed – John F. Kennedy’.

“The plain English text from which this statement is extracted carefully qualifies this famously controversial allegation, eg, ‘according to three United States government investigations …’ or ‘the Warren Commission concluded that …’, without stating directly that Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy.

“The nuances that these qualifications provide are stripped away by the extraction process, leaving only the blunt assertion. As any newspaper editor will tell you, it is precisely these types of nuance and qualifications which save publications from many defamation suits. Clearly this type of error or distortion is a source of legal risk,” Nolan added.

Legal risk

While it might be argued that statements generated by a machine are unlikely to damage the reputation of a plaintiff in the eyes of a reasonable person, recent case law demonstrates that automatically generated content may indeed give rise to legal risk.

For example, a Dutch news portal was successfully sued earlier this year because the Google-generated summary of one of its articles gave the misleading impression that the plaintiff was bankrupt.

“The success of the Semantic Web will in part depend on the ability of those in the field to address these concerns, while enabling the technology to flourish.

“Perhaps one of the most exciting prospects for Semantic Web technologies lies in the possibility that many of the legal challenges which they give rise to may themselves have semantic solutions.

“Averting the legal risk may not so much require the intervention of lawyers and regulators, but rather making the smart data smart enough to control its own legal effects,” Nolan said.

By John Kennedy

Photo: The arrival of the Semantic Web, the next version of the World Wide Web, or Web 3.0, may bring with it its own set of legal issues.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years