There seems little doubt that shipping is approaching a paradigm shift in its adoption of digital technology. Electronic bills of lading, autonomous ships and blockchain are all emerging, at speed, to drag the shipping industry into the 21st century. But adoption is uneven and there is evidence of a growing divergence in digital standards, presenting a significant barrier to widespread and effective adoption.
Electronic bills of lading - e-bills - are a case in point. In addition to the clear and present danger of cyber fraud, e-bills face a number of hurdles. One of the most significant is how to replicate the law and regulations behind a traditional paper bill of lading in electronic form so as to give the e-bill functional equivalence. And not just in one jurisdiction, but uniformly across legal systems so that e-bills can be truly effective in international trade.
Adoption of the UNCITRAL Model Law on Electronic Transferable Records (ETR) is one tangible way of achieving that, but take-up is low. Instead, most maritime law systems, including the English-based common law system, have barely got to grips with the legal implications of e-bills, despite their being around since the 1990s. Until more countries adopt suitable legislation, then e-bills, and the technology behind them, cannot become a commercial and legal norm. And in turn, the shipping laws that underpin the resolution of disputes in the leading maritime arbitration centres cannot develop.