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the Complete Review
the complete review - law/internet

and other Laws of Cyberspace

Lawrence Lessig

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To purchase Code and other Laws of Cyberspace

Title: Code
Author: Lawrence Lessig
Genre: Law/Internet
Written: 1999
Length: 241 pages
Availability: Code - US
Code - UK
Code - Canada
L'avenir des idées - France
Code - Deutschland
  • and other Laws of Cyberspace

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Our Assessment:

A- : significant issues, fairly well addressed

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist B+ 17/6/2000 .
The New Republic B+ 10/1/2000 Cass R. Sunstein
The NY Times Book Rev. B 30/1/2000 David Pogue
Wired A 11/1999 Sara Miles

  Review Consensus:

  All agree that Lessig brings up important questions (though they -- the fools ! -- also seem to think his concerns are overblown). Presentation could be clearer, language less legalistic.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Anyone concerned about how the Internet may change society ought to read one or the other (Code or Andrew L. Shapiro's The Control Revolution) , and would not be wasting their time if they read both." - The Economist

  • "The real value of these books (Code and Andrew L. Shapiro's The Control Revolution) lies less in their concrete recommendations than in their skepticism about libertarian platitudes, their insistence on the need for public attention to emerging problems, and their spirit of uncertainty and wariness about possible consequences of the Internet." - Cass R. Sunstein, The New Republic

  • "Lessig brings a keen focus to some of the thorniest issues posed by today's Internet: free speech, pornography, intellectual property, encryption, law beyond our borders and the courts' inability to stretch the Constitution's intentions to cover the new electronic world. When analyzing these individual trouble spots, the author reveals himself to be a deep, lucid and well-read thinker." - David Pogue, The New York Times Book Review

  • "In this remarkably clear and elegantly written book, (Lessig) takes apart many myths about cyberspace and analyzes its underlying architecture -- from AOL's power to spy on its users to the last mile of copper coming into your house." - Sara Miles, Wired

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Lawrence Lessig, the author of Code, is a professor of law, and Code is emphatically a book about the law. The brave new world of cyberspace (and technological innovation and advancement in general) brings with it a wealth of interesting consequences. The legal implications may, at first sight, not seem to be the most riveting of these. The great value of Lessig's book is that he shows how fundamental "law" (in its broadest sense) in fact is in this specific world (and in general), and how significant the choices are that have been and are being made at the forefront of the new technology.
       The Internet seems, at first glance, a place without rules and government, a beautiful, anarchic free-for-all beyond the bounds of government interference. In fact, of course, the Internet is as hidebound and rulebound as most anything else, different (very different !) only in its fundamental nature. From technological constraints and rules -- basic protocols governing the functioning of data transfer -- to how domain names are assigned and what activity has been criminalized ("hacking", child pornography, etc.) the Internet is regulated from without and within.
       Lessig's too-clever title addresses the two forms of code that dominate the Internet: legal code (law) and machine code (the technology supporting the Internet). As Lessig points out, the influence of both must be understood, as both will determine the shape of the future. The difference between the two types of code is obvious enough throughout the text; nevertheless, the use of the same word for these very different areas occasionally gets irritating. Lessig adds an additional layer of differentiation by talking about East Coast and West Coast Code (East Coast Code referring to Washington, D.C.-imposed statutes, West Coast Code referring to Silicon Valley created software (and, occasionally, hardware)). This may have sounded like a fun idea to Lessig (and it probably goes over well in the classroom), but it is really just pointless obfuscation.
       Lessig correctly points out that the law, as currently written, is ill-equipped to deal with the new frontiers of cyberspace. He warns that deciding legal and regulatory issues in cyberspace according to the system on which our other laws are based is fraught with danger. Property is not the same in cyberspace. Privacy is not the same. Sovereignty is not the same. Indeed, very little is the same.
       It almost sounds like heresy to talk about regulation of the Internet, but, of course, there is a structure to it, there are protocols and regulations governing it. Regulation is both necessary and inevitable. And, Lessig reminds us, regulation comes from within as well -- not imposed by government, but imposed by code itself (i.e. on a purely technical level), by how programs run and how data is exchanged and how access is restricted or made available. Because this form of regulation is often invisible to most users of the technology it is particularly insidious and poses a great threat.
       Lessig finds four constraints that regulate behaviour: law, the market, norms, and architecture. Each of these can influence the others as well. Of greatest interest to Lessig are law and architecture. Architecture -- a term occasionally used interchangeably with "code" to further confuse things -- is the one that is most difficult to see, but often has a profound effect. Among Lessig's many examples is, for example, AOL's (America Online) limit of 23 people in any single chat-room, limiting the use of these fora for affecting change. More significant are filtering mechanisms that can restrict access to sites. While these may seem desirable to allow parents, for example, to prevent their children from gaining access to disagreeable sites they could theoretically also be installed at higher levels of the computer chain, blocking access of certain sites for a large number of users. (The Internet is very open, but it is not completely open -- and the potential to close much of it off is increasing daily.)
       Privacy is a major concern on the Internet, but one of the difficulties in considering questions of privacy is definitional. What constitutes privacy on the Internet ? Complete anonymity is almost impossible. Your ISP pretty much knows every step you take on the Internet, and can easily connect your name and address with your habits and interests. What information should be safeguarded and how ? This can be left to the market -- but the architecture of the web and of browsers makes it difficult for users to stay properly informed. Relatively few users are aware that they are being monitored as they skip about the Internet. Cookies are automatically placed on a user's computer, without notification, unless users set their browser to either send a warning every time a cookie is offered, or decline them straight-out. The burden is on users, most of whom remain blissfully unaware of the ongoing rape of their computers and the collection of extensive private information by companies such as DoubleClick.
       Norms can have some influence (so, for example, DoubleClick has been shamed into backing down -- at least temporarily -- from some of their most egregious abuses of information-gathering), but Lessig correctly points out that the norms of cyberspace are also different from (and change differently than) those in the real world. "Privacy policies" are popular on almost all commercial and many information sites, but study after study indicates that sites do not actually do what they claim in these policies. Abuse is rife -- and consumers are limited in what they can do to affect change.
       Lessig argues for a greater role of government: the state must take part in the regulation of cyberspace. It is amazing how far the Internet has come with a minimum of state-interference: while set up under the aegis of the government there were several efforts to privatize parts or all of it, and almost all of the Internet now runs outside of governmental control. Nevertheless, vital aspects were developed by the government, and there has been some regulation by statute -- most notoriously with respect to so-called "hackers" and child pornography. Lessig convincingly argues that the government has not done a good job in these two areas, but he believes it imperative that the government do take an active role in regulating the Internet, in particular in determining its architecture.
       What lawmakers, statesman, and citizens (of cyberspace and real space) must realize is that the Internet requires a whole new way of looking at certain questions. For example, Lessig sees a potential for copyright protection to shift too far to protecting the copyright-holder: technology might allow complete control over access to (and payment for) all copyrighted information, a protection far greater than is probably desirable. Society and government must decide if that is indeed desirable or not -- and, if not, to regulate code in order to adjust the rights to whatever level is deemed desirable.
       It is amusing to see where government has made a great effort to regulate the Internet: pornography, gambling, encryption (and back-doors that allow the government to "eavesdrop"). In many areas legislators have been stymied by the Internet -- taxation of goods sold over the Internet is one area that will certainly get a lot more attention in the near future. As Lessig repeatedly shows, however, government is playing by the old rules, most of which are ill-suited for this new world.

       The value of Lessig's book is that it asks the important questions. Lessig maintains -- and we agree -- that these are matters for public debate, and that citizens (of the US, of cyberspace, of the world) must be involved in shaping the architecture of the new technology (specifically the Internet). Because if they/we don't, somebody else will -- as Bill Gates, DoubleClick, Amazon.com, and AOL (among many others) have already managed to some extent (to too great of an extent for our taste).
       Lessig offers a large number of hypotheticals and real life examples, with varying success. He repeats himself enough to get his message across, though the explanations are not always as straightforward as one might wish. While generally fairly approachable Lessig's writing is also a tad legalistic, using a vocabulary and explanations that are, occasionally, unnecessarily complex. There are also a variety of attempts at humour that, often as not, seem forced.
       Nevertheless, Lessig does get his point across effectively -- and the point is a vital one. Lessig's own opinions and suggestions are fairly well-reasoned and well-put; far more important, however, is the fact that he manages to set forth the issues and offer them for discussion. It is to be hoped that many people -- legislators and voters, in particular -- take up the book in order to understand what we are faced with, and how important it is that we think about these issues. Highly recommended.

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Code: Reviews: Lawrence Lessig: Other books by Lawrence Lessig under review: Other books of Interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Lawrence Lessig teaches at Stanford Law School.

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© 2000-2009 the complete review

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