Книга: Code 2.0

Chapter8. The Limits In Open Code

Chapter8. The Limits In Open Code

I’ve told a story about how regulation works, and about the increasing regulability of the Internet that we should expect. These are, as I described, changes in the architecture of the Net that will better enable government’s control by making behavior more easily monitored — or at least more traceable. These changes will emerge even if government does nothing. They are the by-product of changes made to enable e-commerce. But they will be cemented if (or when) the government recognizes just how it could make the network its tool.

That was Part I. In this part, I’ve focused upon a different regulability — the kind of regulation that is effected through the architectures of the space within which one lives. As I argued in Chapter 5, there’s nothing new about this modality of regulation: Governments have used architecture to regulate behavior forever. But what is new is its significance. As life moves onto the Net, more of life will be regulated through the self-conscious design of the space within which life happens. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If there were a code-based way to stop drunk drivers, I’d be all for it. But neither is this pervasive code-based regulation benign. Due to the manner in which it functions, regulation by code can interfere with the ordinary democratic process by which we hold regulators accountable.

The key criticism that I’ve identified so far is transparency. Code-based regulation — especially of people who are not themselves technically expert — risks making regulation invisible. Controls are imposed for particular policy reasons, but people experience these controls as nature. And that experience, I suggested, could weaken democratic resolve.

Now that’s not saying much, at least about us. We are already a pretty apathetic political culture. And there’s nothing about cyberspace to suggest things are going to be different. Indeed, as Castranova observes about virtual worlds: “How strange, then, that one does not find much democracy at all in synthetic worlds. Not a trace, in fact. Not a hint of a shadow of a trace. It’s not there. The typical governance model in synthetic worlds consists of isolated moments of oppressive tyranny embedded in widespread anarchy.[1]

But if we could put aside our own skepticism about our democracy for a moment, and focus at least upon aspects of the Internet and cyberspace that we all agree matter fundamentally, then I think we will all recognize a point that, once recognized, seems obvious: If code regulates, then in at least some critical contexts, the kind of code that regulates is critically important.

By “kind” I mean to distinguish between two types of code: open and closed. By “open code” I mean code (both software and hardware) whose functionality is transparent at least to one knowledgeable about the technology. By “closed code”, I mean code (both software and hardware) whose functionality is opaque. One can guess what closed code is doing; and with enough opportunity to test, one might well reverse engineer it. But from the technology itself, there is no reasonable way to discern what the functionality of the technology is.

The terms “open” and “closed” code will suggest to many a critically important debate about how software should be developed. What most call the “open source software movement”, but which I, following Richard Stallman, call the “free software movement”, argues (in my view at least) that there are fundamental values of freedom that demand that software be developed as free software. The opposite of free software, in this sense, is proprietary software, where the developer hides the functionality of the software by distributing digital objects that are opaque about the underlying design.

I will describe this debate more in the balance of this chapter. But importantly, the point I am making about “open” versus “closed” code is distinct from the point about how code gets created. I personally have very strong views about how code should be created. But whatever side you are on in the “free vs. proprietary software” debate in general, in at least the contexts I will identify here, you should be able to agree with me first, that open code is a constraint on state power, and second, that in at least some cases, code must, in the relevant sense, be “open.”

To set the stage for this argument, I want to describe two contexts in which I will argue that we all should agree that the kind of code deployed matters. The balance of the chapter then makes that argument.

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