Bjelkeman's travel notes

Travels with the cloud in my pocket.

Law is hard. Code is harder. Why new internet and software architecture will define the future of society

From left: Lawrence Lessig, Vinay Gupta, Srikant Nadhamuni. Picture of VInay by @charmermar, the other two by me.

Something which Vinay Gupta said the other day brought together several strands in my head. Vinay called it Foreign Policy by Internet Protocol. It is short enough to be quoted in full:

Foreign Policy by Internet Protocol
1. 5.1 billion cell phones, soon to be 7 billion smart phones on 3G networks
2. increasingly valuable services delivered over international borders, like Google
3. global shared knowledge bases like wikipedia or satellite maps
4. telemedicine, tele-engineering, micro-consultancy, social media and so on as the tools spread into new areas of life

Non-state actors conducting FPIP include WikiLeaks, Appropedia and many other groups. Currently it’s not at all clear that any state has begun to effectively deliver FPIP.

Vinay Gupta, Foreign Policy by Internet Protocol (2011) [1]

If you combine the thought that our communications infrastructure is going to start dictate how we think about the world with what Laurence Lessig says: “The Code is the Law”. Then a number of things which are going on in the world today can be seen in a very different perspective than what you see in your average newspaper opinion piece.

Of course, Lessig was years ahead of me thinking about this, in his piece The Code is the Law from 1999 he says [2]:

“The single most significant change in the politics of cyberspace is the coming of age of this simple idea: The code is law. The architectures of cyberspace are as important as the law in defining and defeating the liberties of the Net.”
Lawrence Lessig, The Code is the Law (1999)

The Code is the Law

Consider the example of copying of copyrighted works. You break a multitude of rules and laws if you copy a copyrighted work. Some countries are trying to implement some pretty draconian laws to stop copying over the internet, like the three strikes and your are cut off laws [3], which are met with quite a lot of resistance at the moment. But that hasn’t really stopped anyone from actually breaking these laws. The flow of information over peer-to-peer (P2P) networks is increasing and new laws seem to have short term effect on peoples behavior [4].

Google holds billions of images on their giant server farms with caches of images from web sites. According to the letter of the law they are breaking the copyright law when doing that. YouTube’s HTML 5 trials made it possible to download every video on YouTube to your computer (they seem to have disabled that again) and there is an enormous amount of material which breaks the copyright laws and rules on YouTube. There are some ongoing big lawsuits against Google, who owns YouTube, but in essence, for most people and companies YouTube is more useful than it is a threat, despite what the law says. Add to this that the function of the internet requires that you make a copy of a web page or a picture to actually view it on your computer, and it is trivial to copy it from the web browser cache to save it for later.

In short, the architecture of the internet has a stronger influence on how people behave than what the law says, as long as the majority of the people see a significant benefit.

The extension of this is that software architecture starts defining how our society behaves. Furthermore, I think that internet architects and coders who build useful systems, may in the long run, have a bigger influence on our future society than politicians and the traditional power-brokers have. Why do I believe this?

Law is hard. Code is harder.

My hypothesis is that it is hard to produce good law, which works well in the local and international context. But it is harder to create a good internet system.

“Hang on now!”, you are probably telling me. “How can the internet be harder to build than creating international law? When internet innovation is happening so fast we can hardly keep up and law is stuck in a quagmire?”

I do think it is easier to create good law, than to create good code to drive a massive P2P network. The difference is that the lawmaking process is stuck in old fashioned ways of doing things and the process of extending and improving the internet has embraced all the new tools and allows anyone who wants to participate to just jump in, both feet first or just dip a toe in. The internet runs nearly entirely on open protocols and many more people are directly involved in the day to day function, modification, extension and tinkering with it than our legal system.

Consider the process of lawmaking and compare it to writing code. The end result is that you should get people or the machines which are extensions of people to behave a certain way.

A new law in the US (and most other countries) can consist of thousands of pages, which aren’t properly reviewed by the decision makers and too long for anyone to read. On top of that there are no tools to show who has contributed what text and what was changed from the last time. If we wrote software like we write laws the internet would be stuck in a quagmire too. We used to code like this, but then came source code control systems, which show conflicts between new and old code, they give us version management, tracking and help debugging when something isn’t working. The code making process is often highly formalized and predictable, whereas the lawmaking process is opaque, arbitrary, closed and plagued by behind the scenes politics. (Not to say that there isn’t politicking going on around the technical function of the internet. But it is generally a lot more transparent then law making, particularly international lawmaking. Take the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) as a case in point. [5])

Imagine actually managing the lawmaking process in Github, with actual contributors and their affiliation clearly marked. Revisions tracked and open to view for all. The current residents of the corridors of power would never let that happen. But maybe it doesn’t matter, because the law is moving into the code.

A future society governed by software architecture of today

India’s UID projectThe other day I wrote about the Unique Identification (UID) project in India. 1.2 billion people are going to get a biometric ID. Many of who have no bank account, an address or even a surname today. I believe that the architecture of the UID project is fundamentally going to change how India works as a society.

The question is whether it is going to be for the better or for the worse.

If the architects of the UID project get it right I believe it is going to provide an incredible boost for the Indian society. Corruption, which is endemic today, is going to be much harder to get away with. People with poor economic opportunities, at best, are going to be able to have bank accounts (barely 20% of Indians have bank accounts today), money transfers and be able to make sure they get the fair share of poverty support, much of which is frittered away by corrupt bureaucrats, politicians and business people. Elections will be easier to keep free of fraud. The infrastructure of a democracy which a European, like myself, take for granted will be much strengthened by a system where you can and sometimes have to prove conclusively who you are. I do this regularly in Sweden, where I live. But I use a mishmash of tools, including ID cards, passport, driving license, online security token, credit card plus pin-number and birth certificate to name a few.

If they get it right it could be a huge win. If they get it wrong it could be bad.

India is often called the largest democracy in the world. But it is a democracy which is missing many of the pieces a northern European would expect. There is a small scale civil war going on in the Red Corridor [6] where both paramilitary and military forces fight an often ugly and secretive war with the Naxalite communist movement. It is often argued that corrupt bureaucrats and politicians are fueling this conflict to get access to natural resources in areas where so called hill tribes live. [7] Will the UID system be used to oppress the already oppressed?

In India you can be a state minister and support the slaughter of thousands of people in horrible riots and not be held accountable. [8] If you could identify the people you were hunting maybe the hunt would be more effective. The gradually introduced and very effective registers of Jews in the Netherlands were a major contribution factor to deporting and killing them by Nazi Germany during the Second World War. [9]

However, I have hope that the Indian UID project will indeed be something positive for the Indians rather than something negative. But tools, like a knife, can be used both for good and for bad, and we need to be aware of this. The difference between most internet tools and a knife is that you may not be able to stab someone with a database, but you could collect a long list of people and where they are right now, in preparation to do something worse.

The International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) have been working for several years now to implement better transparency surrounding the spending of development aid funds. The aims are to make information about aid spending easier to access, use and understand. [10] One of the effects which we are predicting from this effort is that we’ll end up with a technical protocol to share information between organisations. You essentially need this to achieve the IATI goals. But the easy and automated sharing of information between organisations, using tools like Akvo Really Simple Reporting (Akvo RSR) [11], which I work with, may well be a bigger boost than what the transparency will offer, as it will make it a lot easier to bring the open internet based methods of working to the table, rather than locking up all that information in the old bureaucratic process. Although one could probably say that transparency and better collaboration are really just two sides of the same coin.

Once these open access tools have been put in place, I don’t think we will be able to remove them again. It would be like trying to un-invent the telephone or the car. They are too useful to remove and our society changes as a result, for good or for bad.

There are many other examples. The creators of SMS text services for mobile phones, Facebook and Twitter did not think their tools would be used to coordinate public protests, like what is going on in Egypt right now as I write this, or the recent protests in Tunisia.

In conclusion

I think that it is fairly clear that information architecture changes how society works, and maybe it changes it in bigger ways and faster than “those in charge” anticipate.
Which is why I have stopped saying you have to be a politician to change how things work. A hacker can be just as powerful, if not more so.

Thomas Bjelkeman-Pettersson, 6 February 2011

Edit 7 Feb 2011 @ 00.15: I forgot, Vinay’s piece also felt like confirmation of my blog about Where open data leads us, which was posted on FutureGov in November. Plus fixed some spelling and grammar errors.

[1] Vinay Gupta, Foreign Policy by Internet Protocol (2011), retrieved on 6 February 2011.
[2] Lawrence Lessig, The Code is the Law (1999), retrieved on 6 February 2011.
[3] Google search: “three strikes copyright”, retrieved on 6 February 2011.
[4] Liselotte Fors, Anna Zoubareva, 2010, The IPRED law: A Study of how a Copyright Law Affects File Sharing on the Internet (PDF) , retrieved on 6 February 2011.
[5] Wikipedia, Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), , retrieved on 6 February 2011.
[6] Wikipedia, Red Corridor,, retrieved on 6 February 2011.
[7] Arundhati Roy, Gandhi, but with guns: Part One, retrieved on 6 February 2011.
[8] BBC, Gujarat riot Muslims ‘eliminated’, retrieved on 6 February 2011.
[9] Ellen Land-Weber, To save a life: Stories of holocaust rescue, retrieved on 6 February 2011.
[10] International Aid Transparency Initiative, retrieved on 6 February 2011.
[11] Akvo Foundation, Introducing Akvo RSR, retrieved on 6 February 2011.

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Filed under: India, ITC technology, Social and economic policy

One Response - Comments are closed.

  1. Deepak Menon says:

    Thomas,

    Wow. Thanks for articulating and referencing your ideas. I agree with both your conclusions towards the end. I have read this quickly, and I shall react in detail. However this has sparked a new set of political questions in my head. I am unable to stick to any topic and not convert it into a political one
    🙂 Bad genes, I suppose. Thats also the reason that I didn’t post this quickly written note as a comment to the post.

    The UID project irrespective of its criticisms ( including mine) would go through. There are several reasons for it, but I want to touch on one of them: the power of technocrats.

    Should democratic societies allow unelected officials – IAS officers, Judges, technocrats, undemocratic institutions ( e.g. corporations) to exist, thrive and control the very societies. I think thats the wider struggle, and effort. Ensuring that deep democracy exists in all aspects of human society – political, social, economic, technological.

    The romance of open source software, and technology has been the creative commons licensing. The other half of creating common standards for cross technology talk is important, but for me that would anyway have been done.

    Also, its easier to build a nuclear reactor than building a bicycle shed. Only 100 people in the world really know how to build a modern nuclear reactor from scratch, however everyone has an opinion on building a bicycle shed. One of the reasons that is is difficult to change laws is that everyone seems to be able to relate to it.

    Societies change slowly. 500 hundred years is a small time in human civilization. So my prediction is that we are moving towards a World Government, but it is happening so slowly and we are living in it, that we do not see it. If my assumption is correct, then your theories of coding falling outside national laws is a temporary phenomenon.

    Secondly, governments and other power structures (e.g. Corporations) take control of the technology apparatus sooner than later. We saw it with radio, with television. We shall see it with internet as well. Its merely a matter of when rather than if. ( My theory is say 20 years). Control would be created by national laws based on ratified international treaties. So entities like Google, Twitter, Facebook, and others would in the end have to tow the Governments Line. Even if the governments are slow to react, the enormous power they wield would ensure compliance, eventually.

    Lastly, it is for us to use and subvert the current technology, systems, practices, structures, norms, laws to forward certain beliefs, ideas. Ours is not a generation that would ensure change the system, our responsibility is to create the conditions for change to happen in the next generation.

    What should these ideas be?

    Deepak

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Co-director: Akvo Foundation

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