When law becomes code and we become sheep


Law, to me, is just like computer code. It has structure, specific syntax and functionality. It is social code, commercial code and sometimes attempts to mirror moral code. It pervades everything we do (whether we are aware of it or not) and, although most of us are passive users, we have the opportunity to become active coders and to structure our legal interactions with each other.

At the moment, most of the legal frameworks we are affected by work because we are directed by those legal frameworks in some way. Contracts dictate our rights and obligations. Laws compel us to behave in certain ways and specify consequences of a variety of actions. An entire branch of the government, the executive, exists to enforce laws because we don’t have programmatic ways of doing that. Imagine if that changed?

I was at a Deloitte event a while ago where the topic of the Internet of Things came up in the context of IPv6 and the vast number of unique IP addresses that we need for connected devices. I found myself wondering what law will look like in a society where all our devices have unique identities in the form of IPv6 IP addresses or similar designations.

Would they enable us to easily contract with each other or even structure our legal relationships without us being consciously aware of them? After all, in the near future – if it’s not happened already – more of our manual transactions with technology will be automated. We ourselves walking up to our front door and being granted access because our phone established our identity with our home security system and authenticated our domestic access credentials without us having to do anything. In a commercial setting, clients could visit your building and be granted access and directed directly to your pre-arranged meeting room based on connected calendars and location awareness. That’s only a slight step ahead of what’s already normal in the HQs of large technology or consulting firms.

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What happens when this technology is applied to legal transactions – which it obviously will be? If signing a lease merely involves receiving a document to your phone then tapping a button, applying a fingerprint or speaking an affirmation, you’ll bind yourself to a series of legal obligations contained in your lease agreement which exists only as code exchanged between your phone and your landlord’s behind the scenes. Doesn’t seem likely? Well, consider that the Creative Commons license applied to this site has a human readable version, the full legal code (what you would expect) and a machine code version designed for machines to read, interpret and act on based on a series of roles and permissions.

Legal documents are becoming commoditised to a point and the cost of those commodity documents is fast approaching zero. This presents a fundamental challenge to lawyers who charge by the page. I don’t see that trend slowing down or reversing. As devices become smarter and authentication and encryption tools become more accessible alongside everyday use cases, we will increasingly structure our legal relationships with each other programmatically and automatically.

This possible legal future may be alarming to you (it should be) because it also means dramatically less conscious participation in those binding interactions. If you consider how few people take the time to read terms and conditions, privacy policies and other legal documents we encounter each day before clicking the ‘accept’ button, it may seem like business as usual with a much more convenient interface.

We should be teaching people to be more aware of what they’re signing, though, not less.

There is a positive side, though. This could also mean that legal enforcement becomes more meaningful and definitive. When our devices establish our boundaries, there is less scope for ignorance, faulty interpretations and outright disobedience. Wait, there was a positive aspect in there somewhere, wasn’t there?

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