Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace

By Cenite, Mark | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace


Cenite, Mark, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. Lawrence Lessig. New York: Basic Books, 1999. 230 pp. $21 hbk.

Lawrence Lessig's Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace is perhaps the most original book yet written about cyberspace law. With an accessible style that is rich in anecdotes and metaphors and surprisingly low on legal and technical jargon, Lessig, a constitutional law scholar at Harvard and a consultant on the Microsoft antitrust case, writes for a wide scholarly audience. Even more than the recent The Control Revolution (New York: Century Foundation, 1999) by Andrew Shapiro, Lessig has managed to write about a rapidly evolving subject at a level of abstraction and theoretical sophistication that ensures that his contribution will long remain relevant.

Central to Lessig's theoretical framework is his breakdown of four modalities of regulation: law, economic markets, norms, and an intriguing category he calls "architecture." Architecture includes constraints that the natural world imposes or that people construct-for example, speed bumps on roads. The architecture in cyberspace is computer code: code constructs the cyber-world. Consider the example of pornography regulation. Lessig contrasts how these four modalities of regulation control access to pornography in "real space" and in cyberspace, vividly demonstrating why a simple translation of existing law from "real space" to cyberspace is often impossible. In real space, pornography is extensively regulated through all four modalities, in ways that limit children's access to it. Laws require that vendors sell pornography only to adults. Markets prevent children from accessing pornography because it costs money. Norms help limit children's access to pornography, both by stigmatizing pornography and stigmatizing dealers who would sell it to children. In the category of real space "architecture," there is the simple matter of how a child is: even if a child attempted to disguise himself as an adult, he would probably notbe successful at fooling a salesperson. These four kinds of constraints may be imperfect, but are reasonably effective in limiting children's access to pornography in real space, Lessig contends.

In cyberspace, however, the modalities of regulation of pornography operate differently and less effectively. Law is unsettled. Markets are different in at least two ways: distribution of digital files is much cheaper than distribution of printed material or videos, and though there are plenty of commercial pornography sites, much pornography can be accessed at no cost through newsgroups. Differences in the "architecture" of cyberspace are crucial because they allow faceless transactions. Faceless transactions may make disguising identity and age simple, therefore allowing a child to avoid the restrictions of law and norms. Thus the "real space" regulatory regime is upset, making pornography generally more available to children in cyberspace. Ways of filtering content or zoning the Internet are now extensively debated, but no simple transfer of the offline constraints to cyberspace seems possible.

As he applies his theory to pornography regulation and the regulation of intellectual property and privacy, Lessig emphasizes that not only the codes of law but computer codethe "architecture" of cyberspace-an "embed" values and enable government and private actors to control behavior. …

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