Exploring Virtual Legal Presence: The Present and the Promise

By Natale, Jessica M. | The Journal of High Technology Law, Annual 2002 | Go to article overview

Exploring Virtual Legal Presence: The Present and the Promise


Natale, Jessica M., The Journal of High Technology Law


I. INTRODUCTION

Virtual legal presence is a term with various shades of meanings in different industries but its essence remains constant; it is a new tool that enables some form of telecommunication in which the individual may substitute their physical presence with an alternate, typically, electronic presence. Considering its novelty, virtual presence is a difficult genre in terms of any substantial history whether it be legislative, editorial or otherwise. Therefore this paper will endeavor to develop a series of arguments concerning the usefulness and reliability of virtual presence as a tool for future online and otherwise electronic activities such as: e-commerce, learning, and politics, etc. This discussion will also present a survey of virtual legal presence: what it means presently, new industry developments, its problems and advantages, and lastly some speculations as to its future. (1)

Virtual legal presence arguably will be one of the most important aspects of personal communication in the twenty-first century: the ability of people to conduct multiple everyday tasks, i.e., voting, marriage, arraignments, shareholder meetings, by being virtually or electronically present whether it be through the Internet, video, or other communications, perhaps even psychical one day. In any event, in 2002, the concept of virtual legal presence is gaining consumer confidence and expanding into an increasing number of industries. The Federal Government has taken notice and has created an E-Government initiative. States, such as California, have experimented with voting for elections online. More people are learning via teledistance courses and being healed via telemedicine devices. As technology advances, so will the sophistication of virtual presence leading into a new understanding of what it means to be present in any sense of the word. (2)

II. VIRTUAL LEGAL PRESENCE IN STATE GOVERNMENT

1. Sunshine Laws--Definition and the Problem Posed

The nuances of virtual presence in relation to open-meeting laws' presence requirements is causing politicians and the public at large to reevaluate what it means to be present, whether a board member is present by telephoning in votes or teleconferencing or whether a meeting truly is accessible and open to the public if it is conducted online. (3) Currently, the law is wrestling with the acceptability of virtual presence and the public is considering the benefits and disadvantages of being virtually present for governmental meetings. Specifically the Sunshine laws are a set of guidelines, which ensure public access and exposure to governmental meetings concerning public matters, the name being derived from the phrase, "Let the sun always shine on government." (4) These laws are integral idea to the American political process, allowing the public to monitor their public officials and hold them accountable for their actions. (5)

The basic goal of these "sunshine laws" is to maintain or restore public confidence in the political process through disclosure. (6) These laws also mandate "disclosure of political contributions are common elements of fair election practices laws, and can also facilitate interim monitoring of public officials." (7) Virtual presence is achieved through a number of electronic means such as email, teleconferencing, videoconferencing, and even electronic bulletin boards. The major problem with virtual presence conforming to preexisting open-meeting laws, is the interpretation of what it means to be present for these meetings. Typically, being present meant being at meetings in person. Today, electronic presence is a convenience and part of modern society which cannot be ignored. Therefore the crux in the presence issue lies in the public's opinion about virtual presence and its acceptability in being tantamount to physical presence at meetings.

As all public meetings have transcripts or minutes, meetings of virtual presence must archive all emails and posted opinions from electronic bulletin boards and web site feedback and make them part of the public record. …

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