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Jun 19

Jimmy Guterman

Jimmy Guterman

New Release 2.0: Living in Code

Today we're publishing the new issue of Release 2.0. What follows is drawn from my editor's letter in this issue.

If you read anything this month other than this issue of Release 2.0, make it Jonathan Zittrain’s Saving the Internet in the June Harvard Business Review. (Disclosure: I do some work for HBR’s parent company.) So lively you might be surprised it was written by a law professor, the article is wildly ambitious, ranging from Wile E. Coyote metaphors to a meditation on the nature of Netizenship. Zittrain’s main argument is that “generativity,” our ability to create via the Net, is the most exciting—and worrisome—aspect of the Net. Indeed, what makes the Net great is also precisely what makes it so dangerous. And, despite the libertarian perspective of many prominent Netizens, many thinkers believe that the virtual world is becoming increasingly similar to the real one in that appropriate laws, or at least agreed-upon rules, are necessary for the Net to survive in its open form. If the Internet can be ruined (by everything from criminals to overzealous politicians responding to those criminals), then how can it be saved from that ruin? We have arrived at what Yochai Benkler, in The Wealth of Networks, refers to as “a moment of opportunity and challenge.”

As the lawmakers in many countries wrestle with how best to regulate (or not regulate) the Net, code remains the de facto law. “Code Is Law” is the term that made Lawrence Lessig famous, but in this context “law” has a very broad definition. It’s not just lawmakers who “lay down the law.” That can be done by anyone in a position of power. That’s as true in a business context as it is in any legal one. The code in an access card determines where you can go in your company headquarters. It’s the law. Outside the physical world, code is even more determinate. The code in your company network determines, at the most precise levels, where you can go and what you can do once you’re there. It’s not just lawmakers who “lay down the law.” That can be done by anyone in a position of power.

In this issue of Release 2.0, we’ve invited writers and thinkers inside and outside O’Reilly Media to investigate the ramifications of “code is law” from five distinct angles:

You can’t dive into the issue and how it plays out in business without talking to the person who popularized the term. We talk to teacher, scholar, and activist Lessig about how the environments of code and law have changed over the past decade, what scares him the most, and what will happen to Alice if she says something defamatory about Juan in Second Life.

Whoever controls the code controls the law of that particular computing environment. And the controlling code for many Net-based applications and services is the underlying Application Programming Interface (API). Nathan Torkington spells out the dangers of a common practice, building a company’s products or services atop another company’s programming interface. He shows why to beware of trying to do business in a place where you have no control over the law.

What happens when you’re used to controlling everything and then you try to give away some of it? Elizabeth Osder used to run news programming at Yahoo, and she was there for the development and deployment of You Witness News, a service in which Yahoo’s customers got to decide what was news and what wasn’t. What happens when you let your customers change the law?

David Weinberger’s wonderful new book Everything Is Miscellaneous stands up for the messiness of the Net and argues persuasively that a more organized Internet is not what we want. In that vein, here he shows why ambiguity in law, especially when applied to the Net, might be exactly what we need.

Why limit ourselves to the real world? Every virtual world has rules its players must abide by—or else. Brady Forrest explores the “or else” and investigates how laws work and bend in online games. Just this week, a judge in Pennsylvania let a virtual land dispute in Second Life go to trial. The real world doesn't go away once you enter cyberspace.

Recently, Mayor Michael Bloomberg altered New York City’s rules to allow people to attach digital photos or videos to 911 calls from their mobile phones. There are profound potential consequences of this action, ranging from the most noble acts of citizenship to the most vile violations of privacy. The advances in code have led to a change in law. And such moves are only the beginning. As with the interactions between Web markets and financial markets that we covered in our previous issue, we’ll be looking hard at the tangled relationships between code and law in the months (and, I suspect, years) ahead. There’s so much to cover. We don’t even touch on the dicey issue of search engine subpoenas here because to do so might take up an entire issue; we may let it do just that in a future issue. In this issue, let’s examine where code and law are now, and what the current and future states of that complicated mix might mean for your business. And for more on how American technology firms large and small are enabling censorship and worse in many countries, what “just-in-time filtering” is doing, and how “onion routing” may turn the tables on governments who are turning code into repression, follow our continuing coverage on Radar.

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Chris Vail said:

If code is law, does that mean open source software is democracy and proprietary formats are ... dictatorships?

Nope, it just means that code in software rules what we can do in the software. In the new issue of the newsletter, we extrapolate on that.

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