Open Source Software (OSS) and regulation by algorithms
by Sebastian Benthall
It has long been argued that technology, especially built infrastructure, has political implications (Winner, 1980). With the rise of the Internet as the dominating form of technological infrastructure, Lessig (1999), among others, argued that software code is a regulating force parallel to the law. By extension of this argument, we would expect open source software to be a regulating force in society.
This is not the case. There is a lot of open source software and much of it is very important. But there’s no evidence to say that open source software, in and of itself, regulates society except in the narrow sense in that the communities that build and maintain it are necessarily constrained by its technical properties.
On the other hand, there are countless platforms and institutions that deploy open source software as part of their activity, which does have a regulating force on society. The Big Tech companies that are so powerful that they seem to rival some states are largely built on an “open core” of software. Likewise for smaller organizations. OSS is simply part of the the contemporary software production process, and it is ubiquitous.
Most widely used programming languages are open source. Perhaps a good analogy for OSS is that it is a collection of languages, and literatures in those languages. These languages and much of their literature are effectively in the public domain. We might say the same thing about English or Chinese or German or Hindi.
Law, as we know it in the modern state, is a particular expression of language with purposeful meaning. It represents, at its best, a kind of institutional agreement that constraints behavior based on its repetition and appeals to its internal logic. The Rule of Law, as we know it, depends on the social reproduction of this linguistic community. Law Schools are the main means of socializing new lawyers, who are then credentialed to participate in and maintain the system which regulates society. Lawyers are typically good with words, and their practice is in a sense constrained by their language, but only in the widest of Sapir-Whorf senses. Law is constrained more the question of which language is institutionally recognized; indeed, those words and phrases that have been institutionally ratified are the law.
Let’s consider again the generative question of whether law could be written in software code. I will leave aside for a moment whether or not this would be desirable. I will entertain the idea in part because I believe that it is inevitable, because of how the algorithm is the form of modern rationality (Totaro and Ninno, 2014) and the evolutionary power of rationality.
A law written in software would need to be written in a programming language and this would all but entail that it is written on an “open core” of software. Concretely: one might write laws in Python.
The specific code in the software law might or might not be open. There might one day be a secretive authoritarian state with software laws that are not transparent or widely known. Nothing rules that out.
We could imagine a more democratic outcome as well. It would be natural, in a more liberal kind of state, for the software laws to be open on principle. The definitions here become a bit tricky: the designation of “open source software” is one within the schema of copyright and licensing. Could copyright laws and license be written in software? In other words, could the ‘openness’ of the software laws be guaranteed by their own form? This is an interesting puzzle for computer scientists and logicians.
For the sake of argument, suppose that something like this is accomplished. Perhaps it is accomplished merely by tradition: the institution that ratifies software laws publishes these on purpose, in order to facilitate healthy democratic debate about the law.
Even with all this in place, we still don’t have regulation. We have now discussed software legislation, but not software execution and enforcement. If software is only as powerful as the expression of a language. A deployed system, running that software, is an active force in the world. Such a system implicates a great many things beyond the software itself. It requires computers and and networking infrastructure. It requires databases full of data specific to the applications for which its ran.
The software dictates the internal logic by which a system operates. But that logic is only meaningful when coupled with an external societal situation. The membrane between the technical system and the society in which it participates is of fundamental importance to understanding the possibility of technical regulation, just as the membrane between the Rule of Law and society–which we might say includes elections and the courts in the U.S.–is of fundamental importance to understanding the possibility of linguistic regulation.
Lessig, L. (1999). Code is law. The Industry Standard, 18.
Hildebrandt, M. (2015). Smart technologies and the end (s) of law: Novel entanglements of law and technology. Edward Elgar Publishing.
Totaro, P., & Ninno, D. (2014). The concept of algorithm as an interpretative key of modern rationality. Theory, Culture & Society, 31(4), 29-49.
Winner, L. (1980). Do artifacts have politics?. Daedalus, 121-136.