New tech and policy lab to tackle biggest challenges in the tech ecosystem

14/08/2020 | 4 mins

The University of Western Australia is launching a world-first Tech & Policy Lab. It will provide intellectual leadership and bold reform proposals to develop best-practice tech governance for tech-importing nations such as Australia and its Indian Ocean Rim neighbours.

Based at UWA’s Law School and supported by $4.8 million from Minderoo Foundation, the new Lab aims to interrogate and correct the ways digital technology has evaded law, governance and associated responsibilities designed to protect individuals and communities from harm.

Directed by Associate Professor Julia Powles, the Minderoo Tech & Policy Lab will coordinate and lead a global project with companion programs at the University of Cambridge, New York University, the University of California Los Angeles and the University of Oxford. 

"The Lab aims to dramatically change this status quo, with a relentless focus on defending rights and protecting against harms to people and the environment."

Associate Professor Julia Powles
Associate Professor Julia Powles

The global project is a sharp-edged collaboration aimed at challenging the current ordering of technology and power, with research zeroing in on three distinctive themes: tackling lawlessness, empowering workers, and reimagining technology with a pro-public focus. The new Lab at UWA Law School will take the lead on the tackling lawlessness theme.

Professor Powles joined UWA in 2019 under a ‘Be Inspired’ Vice-Chancellor’s appointment, after 12 years working in Europe and the United States, most recently at New York University, Cornell Tech, and the University of Cambridge. She is an expert in privacy, intellectual property, internet governance, and the law and politics of data, automation and artificial intelligence.

Joining her as Tech Director will be Associate Professor Jacqueline Alderson, one of Australia’s leading applied machine learning and data science specialists, with a distinguished career in advanced technologies in health and sport. 

Professor Powles said that compared to other sectors, industries, and utilities, the tech ecosystem exists in a legal vacuum with stark absences of any sense of obligation to respond to national frameworks of rules and regulation. 

“The Lab aims to dramatically change this status quo, with a relentless focus on defending rights and protecting against harms to people and the environment,” she said.

“From our vantage point in Western Australia, in neighbourhood with many of the world’s net tech importers, we have a significant agenda for reining in the unchecked power of the tech monopolies and designing the pro-public technologies we deserve in their place.

“We’ve permitted the world’s most powerful companies to operate in a state of exception, reaping massive profits and stockpiling swathes of highly intimate information about us in the process. 

“There is no jurisdiction in the world with laws, policies and institutions to effectively govern the tech ecosystem and, through that, to protect people and communities. We need to end this exceptionalism.”

The Lab’s first three externally-led projects involve Professor Kimberlee Weatherall at the University of Sydney on innovative private law remedies, Dr Will Bateman at the Australian National University on public law protections, and the Australian Academy of Science on data governance and professional sport. All three projects further the aim of making Australia a best-practice jurisdiction for technology regulation.

UWA Vice-Chancellor Professor Amit Chakma said the new Tech & Policy Lab responded to the urgent need for regulation and governance in the ever-evolving global digital environment. 

“Addressing these complex issues will provide great benefits to our local, national and global communities,” Professor Chakma said. 

“This is a vital part of UWA’s mission, and I’m delighted by this opportunity to make such an important contribution to the public good.”

Professor Amit Chakma

Professor Natalie Skead, Dean and Head of UWA’s Law School, said the Lab would be the headquarters of an impressive global network of remarkable researchers.

“It will position The University of Western Australia and the UWA Law School as world leaders in tackling the increasingly complex challenges of regulating the currently unbridled ubiquitous technology domain, placing the public interest at the forefront of its research agenda,” Professor Skead said.

The Lab will involve a core team based at UWA as well as a novel project fund to incubate innovative projects with leading researchers nationally and within the region. The Lab plans to recruit research fellows and PhD students to Western Australia, with an exciting program offering fully-funded PhD scholarships.

Media references

Professor Julia Powles, UWA Law School, 0400 614 729

Simone Hewett, UWA Media & PR Manager, 08 6488 3229 / 0432 637 716

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