- Who'll rule cyberspace? New book explores the coming
showdown between programmers and regulators
- Two kinds of code regulate the Internet, Harvard Law
School professor Lawrence Lessig writes in his first book, ''Code and Other
Laws of Cyberspace.'' Thefirst is embodied in computer programs. This is
the actual code that creates Webbrowsers, Web servers, e-mail systems,
and the rest of the Internet infrastructure. Lessig calls this ''West Coast
Code,'' because it is written primarily on the West Coast of the United
States in such places as Silicon Valley and Redmond, Wash. The second code,
says Lessig, is one made up by lawmakers and regulators in countries where
the Internet's computers reside. Not surprisingly, Lessig calls this ''East
Coast Code,'' since much of the drafting takes place in Washington, D.C.
Lessig's distinction between East and West is sure to ruffle feathers at
MIT and Bell Labs, two great East Coast institutions that have been at
the forefront of Lessig's so-called West Coast Code revolution. Nevertheless,
the idea of dividing regulation into that which is accomplished by computer
programs and that which is accomplished by law is a useful tool for those
thinking about the nature of today's Internet and possible futures. although
the Internet is weakly regulated today, Lessig argues, it is sure to be
well-regulated in the future. The primary reason for this push is electronic
commerce. Many businesses rightly see the Internet as the ultimate tool
for selling products, reaching new customers, and cutting the cost of distribution
- But they also see the Internet as a threat - a place
where customers can distribute stolen trade secrets, download pirated software,
and even post attacks on corporations. Their reaction to these perceptions,
says Lessig, will be to gradually remake cyberspace into a place more friendly
to selling things and less friendly to individuals trying to act on their
own. There are plenty of examples that support Lessig's thesis. One is
the creeping use of unique personal identifiers, or serial numbers, on
the Internet. Intel put a unique Processor Serial Number into each Pentium
III microprocessor; Microsoft puts a unique Globally Unique Identifier
into every document created by Microsoft Word; and Real Networks puts a
GUID into its Real Audio Jukebox program. All these were designed to make
it easier to track computers and people on the Internet. They produce accountability
and destroy anonymity.
- There are other, more subtle ways corporations are regulating
the future of our information space. Consider America Online, which tens
of millions of Americans use to access the Internet. America Online is
a world with particular rules. These rules aren't handed down by God or
Congress. Instead, they are created by AOL's programmers. One rule in the
world of AOL has to do with public assembly. AOL's president, Steve Case,
can send an e-mail message to every AOL subscriber. But all others on the
AOL system are denied this right. On other Internet chat services dozens
or hundreds of people can interact at the same time. But AOL's chat rooms
are limited to fewer than 30 people. AOL likes to think of itself as an
electronic town, but it's different than most towns, because none of the
citizens can vote.
- And it's a town where members will find it very hard
to organize to effect social change. All this wouldn't matter so much if
the Internet were not already an important part of our economy, and likely
to become more so. The future of the Internet is the future of our world.
If we make the Internet a highly regulated space where anonymity is an
illusion and voting is nonexistent, this can't help but have an impact
on the future of our real-space world. With this in mind, Lessig says it's
time for East Coast Code to start exerting more control over West Coast
Code. Decisions are being made that affect the future of the Internet and,
by extension, the future of the world. Do we want these decisions being
made by programmers and product managers, or by an open, political process?
- Lessig's argument is sure to stir controversy. These
days the computer industry's predominant request to government is laissez-faire.
And indeed, says Lessig, the initial attempts of the US government to regulate
cyberspace haven't been too successful. The Communications Decency Act
of 1996 was attacked by technologists and civil libertarians and ultimately
struck down by the US Supreme Court.
- Most recently, the Clinton administration asked the Internet's
Engineering Task Force to build provisions for wiretapping into the very
TCP/IP protocols - the West Coast Code - that drive the Internet. So far
the IETF has refused, arguing such perversions of its code will make the
Internet less secure, and ultimately won't do much to help law enforcement.
- But Lessig reminds us that the alternative to no regulation
by government is, instead, regulation by corporations. 'We stand on the
edge of an era that demands we make fundamental choices about what life
in this space, and therefore life in real-space, will be like,'' he writes.
''These choices will be made; there is no nature here to discover. And
when they are made, the values we hold sacred will either influence our
choices or be ignored.'' Lessig doesn't think government today is up to
the task. But he hopes it may one day take its rightful place.
- Lessig's bias is obviously liberal, not libertarian.
But even if you disagree with his politics, there are still a lot of stories
and history that make this book an easy recommendation. ''Code and Other
Laws of Cyberspace'' does a fabulous job pulling together the most important
issues facing the Internet, from wiretapping and intellectual property
protection to the battle between Microsoft and Linux. And with a wonderfully
conversational style, the book is understandable by both nonlawyers and
nonprogrammers - an impressive feat by itself.
- Technology columnist Simson Garfinkel can be reached
at chat. simson.net.