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(software) code is (administrative) code

My first job out of law school was helping the Massachusetts legal aid program set up a knowledge management website. As one of the technically-knowledgable employees of Mass. Law Reform Institute, a statewide poverty law organization, I found myself in many conversations with MLRI attorneys about various technology-related issues. Many of these involved problems with a computer system called Beacon used by the Department of Transitional Assistance (a/k/a “welfare”) to distribute various benefits to Massachusetts residents.

In the Matrix, Code is Law

I began seeing the very mundane, but vitally important, ways in which software is increasingly becoming the mechanism whereby government executes laws. Lessig’s profound observation, Code is Law, has a corollary: law is code. That is to say, software code is one way in which laws enter our daily lives.

In every state I’ve surveyed, it is software that calculates the amount of money that a family receives in food stamps. But code is everywhere: the controversy over voting machines’ source code is another, highly-publicized, example of this idea.

If software code really is an embodiment of our laws, then I argue that the same principles, procedures, and safeguards that apply to the promulgation of (administrative) code should also apply to the implementation of (software) code. That is to say, the concepts of administrative law — and specifically, rulemaking — should guide how governmental software becomes, effectively, law.

The Matrix, infiltrating the Real World.

I was privileged to give a short talk on this idea last Tuesday at the monthly Cyberscholars meeting here at Harvard; here is the PowerPoint. I’ll be adding a few more posts in the future about some of the specific ideas and cases in that presentation, as well as some of the very helpful feedback I’ve received.

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{ 1 } Comments

  1. english maltese dictionary | April 7, 2007 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    your blog rocks man I really liked the part on the coding of the matrix!! wow… you are great keep on blogging big time dude