The tyranny of code
- By Bruce McConnell
- Feb 18, 2001
Those who believe they can correctly predict the architecture of cyberspace
are usually wrong. As Bill Gates said, "We always overestimate the change
that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that
will occur in the next 10."
Now comes one of the brightest intellects in cyberspace with a bold,
chilling argument that the Internet will inevitably become a powerful tool
of control in the hands of business and government. Does he see clearly
into the future?
In his book, "Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace" (code-is-law.org),
Stanford law professor Lawrence Les-sig begins by arguing that code the
software and hardware that make cyberspace what it is defines what people
can do on the Net. In other words, the Net's architecture makes behavior
possible or impossible.
Lessig acknowledges that the code that has defined the Net to date has
created an "architecture of liberty." How-ever, he is concerned that future
code will create architectures of centralized control that will unduly limit
individual choices about what we can read, do or say anonymously in cyberspace.
The principal forces driving this change are said to be the commercialization
of code writing and the inevitable consolidation of the information technology
marketplace into "a small number of large companies," aided and abetted
by government's desire to regulate the Net. Lessig argues that business
and government will require everyone on the Net to be clearly identified
and have their actions tracked. Free information, free speech and relative
anonymity will disappear. Code must be subjected to collective political
I agree with Lessig that application design defines functionality. I
also agree that society needs to make explicit value choices about privacy,
intellectual property protection and security in cyberspace, and that the
Net's design needs to support those values. But I do not see the deck stacked
in favor of crass commercial interests.
My views are closer to those of Temple University law associate professor
David Post. His critique, "What Larry Doesn't Get: Code, Law and Liberty
in Cyberspace" (www.temple.edu/law school/dpost/Code.pdf), takes on Lessig
with the argument that economic forces will not inevitably produce an oligopoly
of providers. I agree. For me, Linux is a vital example of the Net's continued
free energy. But Post, as a libertarian, goes further, arguing that the
market is a better means of expressing collective values than politics.
This is not my view.
Governance of the Net must come from partnerships among governments
(today the best, if imperfect, expressions of popular will), companies (the
most efficient means of communicating economic choices) and the independent
sector (voluntary associations and the press). In the years ahead, we'll
continue to struggle with how to create those partnerships and to find ways
to use the Net to support them.
McConnell, former chief of information policy and technology at the Office
of Management and Budget, is president of McConnell International LLC (www.mcconnellinternational.com).