Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace

Article excerpt

Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, by Lawrence Lessig, Basic Books, 1999, 230 pages.


Just as Rachel Carson's classic Silent Spring awakened the world to environmental pollution in 1962, Larry Lessig's insightful Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace(1) (Code) seeks to warn longtime inhabitants of cyberspace of a major danger to the wild, unregulated, "1960s-like" environments to which they have grown accustomed. Code challenges the presumption of early Internet heroes, like John Perry Barlow, that technology has created an inherently free environment that can only remain so if governments leave it alone. Code observes, rather, that cyberspace is quite susceptible to alteration and that the gravest threats to online civil liberties in the United States are posed, not by laws, but by computer code--particularly those designed to commercialize the Web for e-commerce.

Code explains how the business community's efforts (with government support) to make it easier to confirm cyberspace buyers' identities also unintentionally facilitate regulation of other conduct. Lessig's particular concern is with those civil liberties and other values central to American society, that the framers of the Constitution left without explicit legal protection; the limits of the technology of the time already safeguarded them. Now that the Internet and other new media have eliminated many physical and economic constraints on intrusive conduct-like the tracking of every page that an Internet suffer views--Code pleads for citizens to defend those privacy and other values they consider fundamental, lest they be diminished--if not eliminated--by code.

In fact, the introduction of e-commerce-friendly Internet code is somewhat analogous to the genetic engineering of agricultural products. As Europeans--and increasingly Americans--have come to recognize, the manipulation of such basic codes may have widespread effects not limited to their targeted product markets or by national boundaries.(2) This has led many to demand public debate on the issue of what many call "Frankenfoods," and its effects on world ecosystems and human health. While Lessig certainly does not oppose e-commerce code, he advocates collective decision making where code may have major consequences with respect to important societal liberties.

From an economist's perspective, Lessig understands that the "externalities" of e-commerce code--in terms of harm to social values--are too significant to expect private sector code writers to design a socially optimal architecture guided solely by Adam Smith's invisible hand. Rather, democratic principles require that, prior to the adoption of important varieties of what he terms "West Coast [computer],"(3) there be public discussions comparable to those associated with the adoption of "East Coast [legal] code."(4) Decisions about how much control over information society wants to allow and by whom, call for democratic decision making. With concerns similar to those of political activist Jeremy Rifkin,(5) Lessig implores citizens not to maintain blind faith in the social value judgments of the commercial marketplace where externalities may be given short shrift, if not ignored altogether, until irreversible harm is done.

While Code focuses on issues arising from Internet technology, it also discusses the more general relationship between technology and law. Code observes that four principal forces regulate people's behavior: laws, norms, prices, and technology (although it calls the latter forces "market" and "architecture"). It explains how each of these limit individuals' actions, how the forces can work directly or indirectly in combinations, and how improvements in technology can dramatically alter the composite constraint on people's conduct. The middle third of Code is entirely devoted to identifying how technology--primarily the Internet--is significantly altering the net effect of these four forces on behaviors. …