Attorneys of the Technology Frontier

As the next-generation voice-and-data network unfolds, businesses stand to benefit from involving lawyers early and often to cope with arising legal issues that go hand-in-hand with innovation

Ericsson is well-established as one of the world’s largest providers of products that make wireless communication possible. What is less-known is that Ericsson is one of the catalysts behind the development of 5G networks, which are more cost-effective and efficient than any currently available. The new infrastructure will provide improved performance and capabilities that will enable the next generation of connectivity and communication.

Developers and marketers often have the spotlight when discussing new technology, and the role of lawyers is often overlooked in these evolutions. The law will likely take a while to catch up to technology that has already connected cars, household appliances, security systems, health-care records, and business systems. The ability to connect every appliance is not far off, and it is referred to by many in the technology sphere as the “Internet of Things.”

Blurred Boundaries and Compliance
John Moore, vice president and general counsel of Ericsson’s North American business, says the company uses the term the “networked society,” which refers to the idea that anything that can benefit from being connected to the network will be connected. That could mean 50 billion devices will be interconnected by 2020. “The technology is moving so fast,” Moore says, “that the law and established business models are lagging behind the convergence of different processes and regulatory requirements that ultimately apply to all of these innovations.”

For example, if a car sends diagnostic data back to a service center, it may also be tracking location and travel itinerary. Privacy issues or interstate guidelines pose potential red flags but may not have clear legal guidance for some time.

Another example is a device like the Fitbit, which spiked in popularity in 2014. The evolution of Fitbit could create a device that monitors seizures, blood pressure, and other personal health data. Such technology would be useful, but if that highly personal information is transferred over a network, privacy and jurisdiction issues could quickly complicate its use.

These sorts of issues go beyond the traditional concerns of being able to connect smartphones from competing wireless carriers so that their customers can talk to each other.

Attorneys in the Trenches
Moore says the key to meeting these challenges is to anticipate them as much as possible. To accomplish that, he and his legal team split their time between focusing on strict legal issues and working with business teams to chart the legal and regulatory landscapes that lie ahead.
“We have to be part of these initiatives from the very beginning in order to understand the goals, processes, and players involved internally and those we might be negotiating with,” Moore explains. “That gives us a holistic view of the circumstances and a greater ability not just to fix problems, but to avoid them in the first place.”

He believes many lawyers are satisfied with uncovering risk and potential legal problems, and then simply saying “no” to a proposed plan. This isn’t a sustainable or efficient option. “The real challenge is adding value by solving a problem,” he says. “Just identifying risk isn’t helping the business. Helping to close the deal is.”

Broader Focus
As the so-called “networked society” continues to grow and becomes more firmly entrenched, Ericsson is adapting to accommodate new customers, such as automobile, appliance, and medical device manufacturers, along with its traditional communications and
technology clients and partners.

This has been a surprisingly smooth transition, Moore says. He believes this is because the company operates within a consensus-driven, cooperative culture. “We’re much more likely to share territory and solutions than to attack or have to defend them,” he says. “It’s the only way to effectively adapt to a marketplace that never slows down and is constantly evolving.”

As part of its effort to stay current, Ericsson conducts quarterly technology training sessions for its legal departments around the world.

As the “Internet of Things” and the “networked society” it supports continue to expand, there is no way to predict which new devices will become connected, what applications they will provide, or what kinds of services will need to be automated. But from a legal perspective, Moore believes attorneys should not only welcome such a dynamic environment, but be invigorated by it. “The technology and the business itself change every day,” Moore says. “In 20 years working here, I can truly say I have never had a dull week. Having to constantly be so adaptable and responsive to so many new developments makes it exciting to come to work.”