Digitalization and the Law in Transition

CJC was represented at a forward-thinking seminar held in Dalian on Digitalization of Transport Documents: the Law in Transition that explored the benefits and challenges being brought by a transformation of the way that shipping does its business.

CJC Consultant Prof. Filippo Lorenzon hosted the First International Colloquium on Digitalization of Transport Documents: the Law in Transition at Dalian Maritime University where he holds a Chair in Maritime and Commercial Law. The event, staged in on October 18, 2019, brought together maritime law scholars from Queen Mary University of London, the University of Queensland, the City University of Hong Kong and Dalian Maritime University, and shipping experts from the container terminal of the ports of Dalian and Tianjin. The resulting exchange of views provided a fascinating insight into the legal and practical implications of the current trend of digitalization.

This colloquium was the first of what is intended as a regular event covering Artificial intelligence, New Technology and Law to be hosted by Filippo at the Law School of Dalian Maritime University. For its debut, four topics were developed: “electronic documents in international trade", "digital documents for a digital world?", "digital bills of lading and issues of title", and "digital documents, litigation and enforcement".

Filippo opened the floor with a presentation entitled The Evolution of the Business Model: Have E-bills Become Necessary? and pointed out that “International trade does not need regulation to evolve; historically when ready it simply moves on”. Among the many speakers Mr. Xu Linlin from Dalian Container Terminal Co., Ltd. delivered a speech on Application of Electronic Documents in Dalian Container Terminal, explaining the WeChat based import process and logistics currently on trial at the Dalian Container Terminal. Dr Alan Davidson, from the University of Queensland, Australia, spoke about The Application of the United Nations Model Law on Electronic Transferable Records to Bills of Lading, and discussed the application of the principles of "functional equivalence" and "technology neutrality" in the UN Model Law. He found that the merchant law has been able to accommodate the use a variety of advanced technology and modes for transaction throughout history.

Dr Miriam Goldby from Queen Mary University of London explained the use of Blockchain Technology in Shipping: Advantages, Obstacles, Challenges. She argued that the emergence of distributed accounting technology has made the circulation of bills of lading safer, but at the same time has challenged the current application of international maritime commercial treaties and domestic laws. Professor Mikis Tsimplis tackled Autonomous ships and digitalization: from Hague, Visby, Hamburg, Rotterdam and beyond. He said that autonomous and remotely operated ships did not pose any challenge to the existing legal order, which only needed to be slightly adjusted. However, the current commercial use of ships still needs to be re-explored in terms of further development of regulatory and safety system technology, as well as rules on the allocation of responsibilities.

Dr Zhao Liang, from the School of Law, City University of Hong Kong, dealt with E-bills of lading and documents of title, while Professor Zhu Zuoxian, from DMU, talked about The legal issues relating to ‘telex release’ or ‘surrendered’ bill of lading in shipping practice. He pointed out that some of the new legal problems generated by the use of technology could be overcome in mercantile practice and do not necessarily depend on new legal solutions devised by national or international legislators.

Professor Yvonne Baatz from Queen Mary University of London, discussed E-bills and the conflict of laws and argued that the application of the law to electronic bills of lading created uncertainty at three levels: International, European and domestic, and that contractual arrangements between individuals should be adopted to overcome various uncertainties.

The one-day round table of experts came at a time when China and the rest of the world are pushing for new technologies to improve efficiencies in international trade, and when blockchain technology and digital transactions are safer than ever before. However, today, the use of electronic bills of lading is still relatively limited.  In going far beyond the traditional transport-centred approach taken by such events, the seminar offered an opportunity for engagement between the panels and audience to explore the way new technologies and possible business models can transform our industry.

The second Colloquium of the series will be hosted in Dalian in October 2020.