Code as law?

I came across this article and was reminded of a common misunderstanding that I’ve been hearing with increasing frequency it seems. The author states “Code as law” as if Code (i.e. software) will someday replace Law.

Certainly one can believe in a vision of the future where computers, software, the internet, artificial intelligence, etc. someday displaces our traditional legal system. Fair enough. But the term Code is Law refers specifically to the Lawrence Lessig article of the same name and the book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, which states something quite different and frankly much more interesting.

Lessig’s argument isn’t that Code (software) will replace Law (our legal framework and institutions) but that cyberspace is an environment that is in and of itself heavily regulated by the rules of Code (the protocols and software that breath life into the internet and internet applications). The point of making that observation is to focus attention on who gets to decide what the rules of Code are going to be, that is who gets a say in architecting these new code-based regulatory structures?

The concept Code is Law isn’t some banal observation about software eating the legal industry or that Code may supplant Law (the mistake the author makes). Code is Law is a powerful observation about how our internet-enabled common spaces are governed and puts a lie to the common trope that the internet is “unregulated”.

Of course, bitcoin is a classic example of a Code is Law regulated space. Whether you view bitcoin as a good or bad financial system, it is most certainly a heavily regulated financial system. It’s just that the regulation of bitcoin happens through Code. And that’s where things get interesting…

 
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