Tesugen

Open code and open societies

Larry Lessig writes in Open Code and Open Societies (PDF) that there are two values that are central to the governance of the Internet: “Open-Evolution” and “Universal Standing”.

Open-evolution is related to the end-to-end principle – the idea that the network should be neutral about how it is used: it should only be about sending packets – the idea that the complexity should be at the ends of the network; the network itself should be stupid. But what Lessig is interested in is the code that constitutes this stupid network, and the fact that the evolution of this code is the result of the work of many programmers.

He links this to antitrust law, which says that “in some cases, a seller can’t bundle the sale of one product with the sale of another. Instead the seller must offer the two separately, even if it offers the two together as well.” The motivation for this is that the market itself, not a company with a dominating position on the market, should decide which products the market wants. On the Internet, the “market” chooses how the network will evolve, through the evolution of the code that defines it, instead of being dictated by an authority.

Switch to the other of the two values: universal standing; this value means that anyone with the proper skills can play a part in the evolution of the network, as a participating programmer on any of the open-source projects related to the architecture of the Net (protocols, Web browsers, e-mail software, chat clients, etc). The authority of the Internet is, to quote David Clark, “rough consensus and running code”. So, the evolution of the Net is chosen by its users and anyone (with the right skills) can participate in this evolution.

“There are choices about how it will evolve,” Lessig writes, “and these choices get made by a council of elders – not old people, but people who have demonstrated that they can produce something. Anyone can propose a direction for the code, but proposals are not in English; proposals are in code. [...] It is the craft of your work and the elegance and power of your solution that commends it and gives it power. Not your status, not your rank [...] but your code: running code, that by its power produces rough consensus.”

The link between open-evolution and antitrust law is, more generally speaking, a link between the former and the market. Lessig also links it to democracy. He writes: “One value of democracy is that the democratic system should leave open the right of the democracy at least to develop in any way it chooses.” That is, the design of the Internet must be neutral: it can’t favor any particular interests. Lessig continues: “Democracy is about preserving the jurisdiction of the people to choose the direction a government should go, just as the law of antitrust places in the market the jurisdiction to choose the direction that a product will go, just as open coders on the Internet place in the citizens of the Net the jurisdiction to choose the direction of that code. [All three contexts] reserve ultimate power to a decentralized, bottom-up method of evolution.”

And with the value of universal standing, Lessig again links this to the market and to democracy. “Markets are to remain open,” he writes. Markets are to permit everyone to enter. “You and I equally are assured an equal right to open a competitor to U.S. Steel or Starbucks. The market guarantees open entry, which simply means it guarantees that everyone may enter the competition.” Similarly, anyone may start contributing to the code of the Internet. The link to democracy is also about this: “that anyone can enter – regardless of class, regardless of blood, anyone is permitted to put their ideas up for selection.” While in “real space, only crazies and the rich ever put themselves up for election”, this ideal seems real in cyberspace: “Vint Cerf, David Clark, Jon Postel, John Gilmore, Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds – these were nobodies who became somebodies for a reason” – because they had something to contribute.

Viewed this way, it is obviously not an evolution in line with the values of the Internet that we are seeing now, with entertainment companies trying to force the Internet into submission. It’s about companies dictating the rules for the network – not the network evolving in the way its users choose. Take the Berman-Coble bill, for example, which is about giving content producers the right to employ what in effect are denial-of-service attacks to “interdict” peer-to-peer services (see this post by Ed Felten at Freedom To Tinker). Sure, the network is neutral to this, but if it is turned into a law, the code will inevitably evolve around this, resulting in an arms race: the Net vs the content producers.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on October 1, 2002. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.

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