Skip to main content


Published onJun 02, 2019

In 2003 Bart Jacobs held his Inaugural Lecture as Professor of Digital Security under the heading of ‘Computers under the Rule of Law’ [De computer de wet gesteld]. Since then, the institute of Computing and Information Sciences (iCIS) at Radboud University in Nijmegen (the Netherlands) has taken a leading role in integrating legal education in the computer science curriculum. I had the privilege of teaching law to master students of computer science since 2011, when I was appointed as Professor of ‘Smart Environments, Data Protection and the Rule of Law’.

This has been a very productive experience, and I have found computer science students remarkably open to the foundational grammar and vocabulary of law, and to the architecture of the Rule of Law. I am deeply grateful for the excellence I encountered, the interesting questions that were raised and the high level of the assignments and papers my students submitted. I wrote the draft chapters last Fall, for the 2018-19 course, and two of the students, Aniek den Teuling and Ruben Eijkelenberg, provided extensive feedback.

This book is the consolidation of those 8 years and I am sure that my new colleague Frederik Zuiderveen Borgesius will find similar intellectual pleasure in teaching them. Since I have been awarded an Advanced Grant by the European Research Council for my research project on ‘Counting as a Human Being in the Era of Computational Law’ (COHUBICOL), I am withdrawing from teaching to focus on the research. I am happy to have somehow found the time to turn the course into a book that combines the formats of textbook and scholarly inquiry, very much in line with the core tenets of the COHUBICOL project that has enabled me to publish this work in open access with Oxford University Press (OUP).

COHUBICOL also brought me the pleasure of working with our coordinator Irina Baraliuc, who has performed miracles in the process of getting this draft online in good order (anything that is not perfect is of my own doing). Since I was hiding in a writer’s cabin in the Berkeley hills while finishing the manuscript, her hands-on assistance with technical and copyright issues was prodigious (though the existence of the internet, the web and its many communicative applications were preconditional; we are no Luddites).

I want to applaud Alex Flach of OUP, who proposed to put this draft online in collaboration with MIT for open review, enabling me to reach out to a more extensive community than the excellent anonymous reviewers that endorsed the book for publication (hoping they will be happy with the final chapter, which deals with some of their comments).

Many thanks are due to my home base in the research group on Law, Science, Technology and Society (LSTS) at Vrije Universiteit Brussels (my main affiliation), with its unique focus on the study of both positive law and legal theory. My longtime colleagues Serge Gutwirth and Paul de Hert have steered this research group in myriad ways that foster intellectual independence while acknowledging that research is a practice that is always done in collaboration with others, whether in person or through reading (which generates what Montaigne called a ‘monologue interieur’, though a ‘dialogue’ or even a ‘plurilogue interieur’ seem more on-the-spot).

The intellectual shoulders that have carried me this far could fill a universe, if not Borges’ library: lawyers, philosophers of law, philosophers of technology and computer scientists. To really understand the law, and its foundational relationship with the technologies of written and printed text, one should, however, ‘simply’ read case law. Merely immersing oneself in the intricate reasoning of e.g. the Court of Justice of the European Union or the European Court of Human Rights will generate admiration for those who must think across national jurisdictions, while resolving highly complex interferences between fundamental rights and freedoms, public interest, private interests, legal certainty, justice and the instrumentality of the law. I hope this work will contribute to a better appreciation of the role of law in the realm of data- and code-driven environments, based on a proper understanding of the goals, the operations and the limits of the law.

This work is dedicated, however, to Don Ihde, founding father of philosophy of technology in the US, whose understanding of how technologies reinvent us as we invent them is of critical importance to better grasp the assumptions and implications of our new code- and data-driven lifeworld - even if that may not be his primary focus. Don has deeply inspired my appreciation of the systems that computer scientists develop, and the need to inquire how they affect both law and the Rule of Law.

Mireille Hildebrandt

31 May, 2019

Berkeley CA

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?