Interview with Tammy Katsabian

By: Tammy Katsabian

Q: In a few words, please tell us a bit about yourself

A: All my adult life I’ve been interested in the connection between academia and research and social action, whether using legal or educational tools. I chose to study law because I wanted to use legal tools to advance social justice and human rights. Accordingly, it was only natural that after I completed my undergraduate studies, I chose to work as an intern at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, where I focused mainly on issues relating to labor, welfare, and women’s rights. After I gained the long-awaited title of “attorney,” I wanted to continue to combine research, education, and legal-social action. For four years, I combined various areas of activity: studying toward a master’s in law with a thesis track in the Law, Society, and Political track at Tel Aviv University; working as an attorney at Tmura anti-discrimination center, and working as a group leader and facilitator in the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Amnesty International. After four intensive years working in all these fields, I decided to devote myself to legal research and traveled to Yale University to study for a second master’s degree. At Yale I had an opportunity to take a whole year and focus on research and writing on issues relating to labor, welfare, and women’s rights. That was certainly one of the most meaningful years in my life. After I returned to Israel, I once again felt the urge to get involved in social action. I found myself working in Shatil as coordinator of the democracy and identities sphere. This was a period when a large number of incidents were being exposed in Israel involving the exclusion of women, and this motivated me and other women to establish the Forum against the Exclusion of Women, which was founded by Shatil. I coordinated the forum for about two years, after which I again began to long to delve into the academic legal field again. I found a position as the professional director of the Center for Clinical Legal Education at the Hebrew University. During the same period, I also established the Clinic for Women’s Rights at Work at the Hebrew University, which I supervised for two years. The return to academia inspired me to get involved again in research and in-depth theoretical thinking and writing. Three years ago I began to study toward my PhD degree. My thesis examines the subject of workers’ rights in the internet age, and my supervisor is Prof. Guy Davidov, a world-renowned expert in the field of labor law.

Q: What is your field of research? Can you give us a couple of examples?

A: My research examines workers’ rights in the internet age, and takes the form of an article thesis. The rationale behind my thesis is that the internet age has led to numerous social changes that influence workers’ status and rights. This obliges us to take a fresh look at basic workers’ rights and to find creative legal solutions adapted to the internet age. Since we are still in the midst of the internet revolution, legal discourse on this field is still in its infancy. My hope is that my doctorate will help promote the initial regulation of workers’ rights in the internet age.

One example I can give in this context is the issue of workers’ right to privacy in the internet age. Virtual technology allows employers to monitor their employees’ activities on a broad scale, at very low cost, and in many cases without the employee’s knowledge. Moreover, the virtual domain and social networks are challenging the classic definitions of privacy. A “privacy paradox” can be seen: people are sharing more and more information online, but they treat this information as private as long as they upload it in a specific virtual social domain. These phenomena and others specific to the internet world are challenging the concept of the right to privacy for workers, in practice and in theory, and require us to identify creative solutions appropriate to this new domain and to classic employer-employee relations.

Another example relates to the concepts of “work time” and “workplace.” In the past, work took place within a defined and regulated space and ended once the worker went home. In the internet age, work may also continue at home, challenging basic time-related concepts at work. The idea of “work time” and the accruing rights – salary per hour, restricted work hours each day, increased payment for overtime, rest hours, and so forth – are acquiring new meanings in the internet age. In many cases, the classic regulation of these concepts is no longer relevant. My second article for my thesis seeks to examine these changes and identify innovative solutions adapted to the internet age.

Q: Why did you choose this specific subject? Did your professional or personal background lead you in this direction? Did you ask yourself those questions in your previous positions?

A: I’ve always been interested in issues relating to work and welfare, both in the academic and research field and in the practical legal field. During my internship in the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, I mainly handles cases involving the rights of contractual workers. I helped the attorney to draft statements of prosecution for contractual workers and to prepare a booklet detailing their rights. Later, at Tmura anti-discrimination center, one area I worked on was cases of sexual harassment in the workplace and discrimination in admission to work due to ethnicity. My thesis at Tel Aviv University examined the subject of the right to supplementary income, and was supervised by Prof. Neta Ziv and Prof. Guy Mundlak, an expert on labor law. At Yale, too, I concentrated mainly on courses relating to American labor law, feminism, and social change.

After I started to work as the professional director of the Center for Clinical Legal Education, alongside Dr. Einat Albin, who was the academic director of the center at the time, we came up with the idea of establishing another clinic at the center. Dr. Albin is a researcher who specializes in labor law, and given my interest in this field we decided to dedicate the new clinic to women’s rights at work. Our goal was to expose students to activities in this field. I worked as the clinical supervisor of the Clinic for Women’s Rights at Work for two years. Prof. Guy Davidov served as the academic supervisor at the clinic. My exposure to Prof. Davidov’s writing and legal research motivated me to continue to specialize in the field of labor law from the research angle, and that’s how I came to write my doctoral thesis under his supervision. My focus on labor law was natural and automatic given my previous experience in this field. Today, I continue to be involved in the work of the Clinic for Women’s Rights at Work (which has been renamed the Clinic for Women’s and Economic Rights), this time as the academic supervisor. On the other hand, the internet angle was new to me and I had no previous exposure to this field and to the virtual domain. My choice to combine the field of work and the internet was simple curiosity. I am still fascinated by the changes that are occurring in the internet age – the way people behave on Facebook, the addiction to WhatsApp and the obsessive reading of emails on our smartphones, new forms of work that did not exist in the past (such as working for Amazon or Uber) – all these led me to think about the social transformations our society is undergoing due to virtual technology and the internet interface. I wanted to explore the impact of the internet on my familiar sphere: labor law.

Q: Do you believe reckon that the “Cyber Era” makes your research topics more complex by comparison to other periods in recent history? If so, why?

A: In her book From Widgets to Digits, Katherine V.W. Stone describes how the world of work has changes over the course of history. The way work took place during the agricultural age is completely different from the way it took place after the beginning of the industrial revolution. Similarly, the computerized office revolution led to all kinds of changes in the field of work. The internet age is a direct progression of the computerized office revolution, which formed the arena for work following the invention of the computer. Each era has its own unique features, new ways of performing work, and different impacts in terms of employer-employee relations. Above all, each era has different ramifications for workers’ rights and brings new challenges that legal solutions adapted to changing realities. On the basis of this analysis, we might assume that the internet age and the changes it is bringing are not essentially different to the changes that have taken place in the field of work throughout history in each era. However, this is an assumption that I seek to challenge in my doctoral thesis, drawing on sociological works by thinkers such as Zygmun Bauman, Manuel Castells, Christian Fuchs, Ursula Huws, and others. My basic argument is that the internet age differs from all the previous ages, because it is undermining the basic social and legal assumptions we have maintained throughout history, and that served as the foundation for the formulation of legal rules.

By way of example, the internet age presents immediate and practical challenges to the classic distinction between private and public. Aspects that in the past were seen as part of the private sphere are now routinely exposed in the public domain. Similarly, the internet age is challenging the basic concepts of “time” and “place.” Sociological writing on this subject shows how the internet revolution is enabling people to be “present” simultaneously (and virtually) in different places and times. Information can now be transmitted in a matter of seconds without limitations of time and place. In the internet age, work may be performed by workers in India, managed by directors in the US, and intended for customers throughout the world. The clear borders of time and place that formed the basis of human activity in the past have changed completely in the internet age. As a direct result of this, the clear definitions of “work time” and “workspace,” as I discussed above, have also been totally undermined. Other basic definitions are also being challenged in the internet age. For example, the distinction between “salaried work” and “freelance work,” which forms a foundation of labor law, has undergone significant changes. The virtual interface permits the challenging of traditional work relations and is transforming the algorithm into a new manager and even a new “employer.”

The legal work finds itself forced to confront this constant destabilization of basic definitions and the emergence of more flexible and fluid definitions. By its nature, the legal world relies on clearly-defined legal definitions and on overt rules defining good and bad, prohibited and permitted. The flexibility and fluidity that the internet age has brought to basic legal concepts, such as “work time,” “employee,” and “workplace,” has created new challenges for the legal world on both the theoretical and the practical levels. As I see it, these challenges differ substantively from those the world of law has faced in the past throughout history. The legal world, rooted in stability and certainty, is now being required to cope with the vague and amorphous world that the internet is creating. This is a new type of challenge, and it is one that requires us – as legal professionals – to think creatively in order to remain relevant to the changing world around us. I believe that this challenge is particularly important in the field of work, due to the clear power relations between employee and employer, and the concern that employers will exploit today’s amorphous reality to their own advantage.

Q: Having explained the problem, what is your solution? What is the right model? Is it applicable?

A: How can we regulate and ensure workers’ rights and maintain legal stability and certainty given the flexible and amorphous nature of the internet world? This is the question I seek to examine in each of my doctoral articles. Naturally, I offer a different solution in each chapter, according to the specific issue involved. But the principles and guidelines I seek to apply are the same in all the chapters:

A. Firstly, I argue that in order to regulate a legal issue in the internet age, it is important to adopt the architecture of the internet and not to try to oppose it. In this respect I am continuing the line adopted by Lawrence Lessig, who argues that code is law, and that it is virtual technology itself that ultimately regulates the legal world and determines what is legal and legitimate and what is not. Accordingly, and in the context of work, I also aim to show that the legal solution and regulation of employer-employee relations must be based on the architecture of virtual technology. For example, in the internet world, work often takes place from home, remotely, in a way that can impair the right to receive payment per hour of work, since not all work hours are reported. Another potential problem is the right to rest, since work sometimes continues into the evening, night, and weekend due to the pressure to be a hardworking and efficient worker, thereby eliminating the possibility to enjoy genuine rest. A legal situation that seeks to base itself on virtual technology, rather than to oppose it, will not seek to return the world of work to the old age, when work time and the workplace where clearly defined and had impermeable boundaries. In my opinion, such a solution will have no chance of success given today’s technological reality. Instead, the solution lies in new models for counting work time and providing remuneration for distance work based on virtual technology.

B. Secondly, I believe that in a virtual world characterized by constant uncertainty and flexibility, the legal solution should function (additionally or even primarily) on procedure rather than on essence, since the essence may be constantly changing. The clear power relations between employer and employee in the world of work, together with the basic principles of the internet age, mean that we need to concern ourselves with a procedural shell that can enable the genuine and relevant safeguarding of workers’ rights. Accordingly, in the internet age, the field of work should place particular emphasis on the right of workers’ committees to form an integral part of any procedure; the granting of right of hearing to employees; full transparency in all aspects relating to privacy policy, the number of hours worked in a given month, and so forth. While the essence of the right may often change due to technological developments, insisting on the application of such procedural rules will ensure that the underlying rationale and purposes of the legal right continue to be maintained.

Q: What is the next phase in your professional/personal life?

A: Firstly, I hope to finish my doctoral thesis soon and move on to the next stage of life. If I have an opportunity to continue to post-doctoral studies in the US, that would be wonderful. There are quite a few research institutes at various law faculties in the US that are combining legal-social discourse with sociological insights relating to the world of work. I would really like to take part in the work of one of these institutes and to bring my own knowledge relating to labor law and theories of labor law in the internet age. Later, I hope that I will be able to find a place in an academic institution in Israel and to combine research and teaching in labor law and the internet with clinical-educational work. In other words, I hope that down the road I will be able to return to the areas I began with and which I have almost always managed to combine along the way: theoretical legal research, legal education, and legal action. In the future, though, this combination will be more focused and professional, thanks to the new field of knowledge I have acquired in social aspects, law, and the internet.

Q: What is your message for the public?

A: Firstly, I would like to thank the Cyber Center for its generous financial and intellectual support along the way. I think it is great that there is a cyber hothouse within the Faculty of Law that facilitates exposure to additional fields of knowledge in the cyber world.

My message to theoreticians in this field can be divided into two parts, according to the areas in which they are involved:

1. For theoreticians in the field of labor law, my message is: the technological changes are already here. We can’t oppose them – that’s a lost battle. We need to adapt the field of work to the architecture of the internet world, so that workers’ rights will continue to be relevant in the changing world around us, and so that we will be able to implement them on the ground and not only on the pages of our books.

2. For theoreticians in the field of cyber law, my message is: the concepts of cyber and cyber security are much broader than the meaning of “security” in the traditional, narrow sense of the term. The challenges brought by the cyber world are not confined to issues such as virtual international crime or warfare. The cyber world has led to various social changes that are relevant to many other fields of law, such as the field of work. If we want to be relevant to the discussion on current issues and on the real challenges created by the cyber world, we need to break out of the security-centric discourse and examine the impact of the cyber world on other areas, such as work, the family, the city, and so forth. In each field, we need to ask what challenges the cyber world has brought and how the legal world can address them. What new legal difficulties are we facing? And what is the most efficient and desirable legal solution in the new amorphous cyber world? Individual security can be undermined not only in situations such as threats to government or bank websites, but also when their economic or family stability is undermined in the internet age.

If we manage to combine the cyber world with the classic fields of knowledge, we will be able to formulate insights that are more relevant to changing reality. These insights will also enrich the field of theoretical knowledge.