Colin Rule (Eritrea) — “Separating the People from the Problem”
This article from Harvard’s “The Practice,” shines a light on ODR and its evolution using Colin Rule’s career as a guide. In building ODR systems for the world’s largest online marketplace and for court systems across the country, Rule’s career offers a window through which to observe and understand the larger ODR movement—a movement that is all the more important as the world grapples with the continued impacts of COVID-19.
Separating the People from the Problem
The Rise of Online Dispute Resolution
Colin Rule (Eritrea 1995–97)
When the Apple II was released in 1977, it was among the first computers marketed and mass-produced for businesses and individuals alike. Apple would later adopt the slogan “The computer for the rest of us,” hinting at its technology’s broad appeal among a nonexpert consumer base. It is fitting, then, that as a grade school student in 1980, Colin Rule first dabbled in the world of online dispute resolution (ODR) by running a bulletin board out of his bedroom in North Texas with the help of his Apple II Plus
At that time, bulletin board systems were digital networks for exchanging messages and files via modems connected by phone lines—precursors to today’s chatrooms, comment threads, and social media of the internet. As heated, often offensive exchanges—so-called flame wars— became an increasingly common problem on bulletin board discussions, Rule developed an interest in conflict resolution in digital spaces. “This was before I was ever trained in dispute resolution,” Rule says of his early foray into ODR. “There were guidebooks of sorts about how to resolve flame wars, but these were early days.”
Rule’s interest in peacemaking would only grow. By the late 1990s, Rule had earned a bachelor’s degree in peace studies, a certificate in dispute resolution, and a master’s degree in public policy in conflict resolution, all in addition to experience as a mediator at the National Institute for Dispute Resolution and the Peace Corps. “I left for the Peace Corps in ’95 when the internet was largely just a figment of people’s imagination,” he recalls. “I came back in ’97 and everybody had email addresses. Everybody was talking about the internet. It was amazing to me how quickly things had changed.”
Rule realized his dual passions for dispute resolution and technology could come together to create something special, and he embarked on a career in ODR. After working for Mediate.com, an online database of mediators not unlike 1-800-Dentist, he founded his own company, Online Resolution, in 1999 in an attempt to translate the nascent field of ODR into a platform that resolved real disputes. Rule’s snowballing expertise would subsequently lead him to key ODR-related roles at eBay, PayPal, Modria, Tyler Technologies, and then back to Mediate.com, where he was recently named president and CEO.
In this article, we shine a light on ODR and its evolution using Rule’s career as our guide. In building ODR systems for the world’s largest online marketplace and for court systems across the country, Rule’s career offers a window through which to observe and understand the larger ODR movement—a movement that is all the more important as the world grapples with the continued impacts of COVID-19, such as how to administer justice and resolve disputes in an increasingly distanced society.
ADR and ODR
If one were to trace the development and underpinnings of ODR back far enough, eventually they might notice another, very similar term slip into the discussion—alternative dispute resolution (ADR)—and it is worth noting the distinction between the two. ADR is, generally speaking, the broader concept, with some defining it as “[a]ny method of resolving disputes without litigation.” Or, as Rule puts it, “ODR is simply ADR plus technology.”
As one would expect, the history of ADR does indeed go back much further than that of ODR. As Rule describes, forms of ADR have been around since disgruntled customers thought to chisel their complaints onto clay tablets, from consumer disputes over copper ingots in ancient Mesopotamia to arbitration agreements in England’s Middle Ages. Much more recently, ADR has been used in the United States throughout the 20th century in instances such as collective bargaining and the use of other mediation and arbitration methods to resolve labor disputes.
In the 1970s, Rule adds, ADR began to take form as a field unto itself with the rise of programs like Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation, which at the time was home to ADR pioneer Frank Sander. “Sander gave a talk in 1976 where he really introduced the concept of the multidoor courthouse,” says Rule. “He argued that maybe we should create different pathways for resolution for different types of cases. Sander was really one of the fathers of the ADR movement.” Around that time, community dispute resolution centers were popping up to resolve certain types of issues—those that were worth resolving but perhaps did not rise to the level of a full courtroom experience, like complaints about barking dogs or property line disputes. As we see below, ODR became a natural extension of these efforts as the tools and capabilities of the internet were introduced and continuously expanded.
Building a system for 60 million disputes: eBay and PayPal
In 2002, Rule published a book, Online Dispute Resolution for Business, distilling his experiences gained from founding Online Resolution. Not long after, he got a call from a senior vice president at eBay who had read his book and wanted to fly him out to talk about it. Rule spent about a week consulting for eBay. A month later, they asked him to sign on as a director in eBay’s trust and safety division to help build up their ODR system. “I was like, ‘Well, I have a company. My whole family’s back in Massachusetts,’” recalls Rule. “Then they said, ‘Here’s how much we’re going to pay you.’ And I said, ‘Oh, OK. So, I guess I work for eBay now.’”
Colin Rule (Eritrea 1995–97) is CEO of Mediate.com. From 2017 to 2020 Colin was Vice President for Online Dispute Resolution at Tyler Technologies. Tyler acquired Modria.com, an ODR provider Colin co-founded, in 2017. From 2003 to 2011 Colin was Director of Online Dispute Resolution for eBay and PayPal. Colin co-founded Online Resolution, one of the first online dispute resolution (ODR) providers, in 1999 and served as its CEO and President. Colin worked for several years with the National Institute for Dispute Resolution (now ACR) in Washington, D.C. and the Consensus Building Institute in Cambridge, MA.
Colin is the author of Online Dispute Resolution For Business: B2B, ECommerce, Consumer, Employment, Insurance, and other Commercial Conflicts, published by Jossey-Bass in September 2002, and co-author of The New Handshake: Online Dispute Resolution and the Future of Consumer Protection, published by the ABA in 2017. He received the first Frank Sander Award for Innovation in ADR from the American Bar Association in 2020, and the Mary Parker Follett Award from the Association for Conflict Resolution in 2013. He holds a Master’s degree from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in conflict resolution and technology, a graduate certificate in dispute resolution from UMass-Boston, a B.A. from Haverford College, and he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Eritrea from 1995-1997. You can read many of his articles and see some of his talks at colinrule.com/writing.
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I would love to learn of examples of dispute resolution within authoritarian systems. Colin knows one such system intimately (as I do)—Eritrea, where we both served as PCVs. After contributing to the dismal failure of a mediated border dispute with Ethiopia, Eritrea’s dictator cracked down on all forms of dissent. One of the world’s newest nations, Eritrea has, in just 20 years, acquired of the worst human rights records. It seems to me that an urgent question facing Eritrea—and the U.S.—is how to mediate conflict when the party in power lacks empathy or a conscience. Considering our own history as a guide, tyrants must be overthrown before disputes can be resolved peacefully.
John, I share your dismay about Eritrea’s situation — I had some new hope when Abiy Ahmed took over in Ethiopia, but that situation seems to be deteriorating rapidly. Now we’re just waiting for Isayas to die, and crossing our fingers that it won’t result in just another strongman stepping into his place and continuing the oppression. USIP has done good work looking at dispute resolution within fragile systems: https://www.usip.org/programs/conflict-prevention-and-fragility-working-group — they’ve documented the key civil society components countries need to bolster peace, and unfortunately Eritrea is lacking is many if not most of the areas. I love my Eritrean friends and former students, and my fondest hope is that conditions improve for them soon. Awet n’hafash.