July 10, 2000 Who or what rules in that romantic frontier called cyberspace? As it evolves into an increasingly central part of "real space," will cyberspace take on the zoned and regulated and law bound character of the rest of civil society? In Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Lawrence Lessig addresses these questions in three different ways: 1) he makes a crucial conceptual articulation between two kinds of code-computer code and law: each entails the sorts of structuring constraints familiar from architecture (code and law as two forms of architecture becomes the guiding metaphor of this book); 2) Lessig sounds a warning about the dangers of the regulated world he sees coming to cyberspace; and 3) Lessig submits a plea to his reader: that we deliberate about the sorts of code(s) within which (remembers it's an architecture) we will choose to live. What gives this argument its conceptual power and plausibility is a series of carefully developed theses about the code of cyberspace, the problem of regulation, and the solution: the deliberation upon a constitution for the digital age. 1: The open code of cyberspace. Since the matrix of cyberspace is woven from code, there is no fixed nature or essence to cyberspace. The Web may have started as a network woven from open software code, thereby embodying an ethos of liberty, but a comparison of the many different networks and network communities (AOL, listservs, avatar based networks, etc.) suggests the variety of different possible networks, the different sorts of social life they enable, and the way they are changing under the pressure of commerce. The code of cyberspace can be rewritten, and that process is going forward at this moment. The openness of digital code can be used to restructure cyberspace so as to subvert the celebrated values of openness (public access, transparency, equality) mistakenly thought to be the Web's essential nature.
2: The problem of regulation. Lessig's book complicates and expands the concept of regulation. Government may regulate by direct laws, but the example of tobacco smoking shows that government can use both direct and indirect means to achieve its ends. But it is not just the government (as libertarians think) that regulates. Instead, regulation in both real space and cyberspace happens through the convergence of the law, the market, social norms, and architecture. Through the centrality of code to cyberspace-it is the infrastructure of every aspect of its functioning-- computer code produces a kind of architecture... and, Lessig insists, "Architecture is a kind of law: it determines what people can and cannot do. (59)" If the basic assumptions of the net were openness and liberty, anonymity and freedom of expression, now the web is being reshaped so that it can become the site for commerce. Commerce requires networks that are closed, secure, and robust, and forms of digital identification that compels a certain form of personal accountability. The powerful new players on the net (business aided by government) have an interest in rewriting the codes of cyberspace. Lessig is most dire and most convincing in his description of the power of networks to control in such a way that those controlled have little or no choice, especially because they don't even know they are being controlled by a network structure that represents itself as nature. Here Lessig's 1999 book rhymes with the most popular film of the same year, THE MATRIX. It is this strand of the book that is "dark" for the way it resonates with those many paranoid dystopian s/f narratives that warn us about a use of technology to create a world of total control. Like Morpheus character in THE MATRIX, Lessig is trying to wake us up ("welcome to the real world," Neo) and scare us into action. Lessig supports the open source software movement associated with Linex. Open code, because it is no one's property, can help users resist the enclosure of the Net in private and proprietary software systems. But Lessig does not see open source software movement as a sufficiently powerful counter-force to the regulatory potential of large corporations aided by government. That is why Lessig's book is something of a call for a constitutional convention.
3: The solution: a constitutional convention? Lessig book insists that the web's architecture shapes the spaces in which we live as well as the quality of our freedom; therefore it is the stuff of politics and it should be open to informed inspection, analysis and control by citizens. This leads to the constitutional strand of his argument. Liberty in real space is not the result of a simple absence of government; instead it is the result of a Constitution that offers a legal architecture to promote certain values (like property, privacy, free speech, etc.) sustained by courts, governments, institutions. In three chapters that are at the core of this book, Lessig offers compelling accounts of how the new technology poses a threat to old equilibrium between intellectual property and a public commons (e.g. fair use), privacy and surveillance, free speech and constraints upon speech and access. Lessig is particularly strong in his survey of the legal implications of the changes brought by cyberspace. Some Constitutionalists will always try to return to the values as defined by the founders of the United States so as to translate them into a new historical context. But the founder's reality and technology is not ours. Our technologies may expose latent ambiguities in the very concept of copyright, privacy, and free speech. This situation requires that we make difficult new choices. In each of these areas, Lessig describes the kind of digital and legal code he favors. For example, he is against privately developed "trusted systems" for enabling a fine grained control of access to intellectual property, for these systems will erode the valuable balance between copyright and fair use that has developed since the invention of copyright.
This is a compelling and important book. It offers a valuable counter-point to those many accounts of the Internet that emphasize its autonomous development and spontaneous solutions to countless human problems. However, I can't help avoiding the sense that I have been led, through admittedly convincing arguments, to an impossible prescription for the way software code should be written and software systems adopted. Thus against the co-equal interaction of law, market, architecture, and norms as constraints (or protections) of the human subject that Lessig's book outlines, Lessig book finally advocates a hierarchical transmission model: Values as defined by Us (at the Constitutional Convention for Cyberspace?) will lead to Code as Law (as defined by legislatures and courts) which will in turn define the possible legal Architectures for Cyberspace, to which the market and social norms will be obliged to accommodate themselves. Could one constrain software and network development in this way? If we could, should we? Perhaps not unsurprisingly, for this Constitutional lawyer, the policies Lessig advocates ends up leaving the crucial step in his reform-the application of values-to the lawyers: "Our question should be the values we want cyberspace to protect. The lawyers will figure out how."(181)