Code is law: metaverse worlds as the ultimate sovereign states

Paul Raven @ 09-11-2010

A disappointingly brief interview piece at New Scientist has Greg Lastowka talking about the subject matter of his new book, Virtual Justice. I say disappointingly because there’s whole raft-loads of fascinating implications behind the bits that made the cut; I guess I’ll just have to buy the damned book (which was probably the entire point of the interview, to be fair).

Carping aside, Lastowka is talking about law and governance in virtual worlds… or rather the need for such. Thing is, it looks to me like he’s also implicitly conceding that trying to enforce such legal frameworks from without (i.e. from meatspace reality) will be, at best, an uphill battle:

NS: Surely technology has always influenced law. Are things fundamentally different today?

GL: Yes, I think so. To an extent, technology is displacing law. A virtual world owner has a choice between law and technology as tools to further their interests – and they are generally turning to technology first. In 1999, Lawrence Lessig used the phrase “code is law”, and it applies to virtual worlds today. If you control the very nature of the simulation – how gravity works, how a person walks, where they go, what they can say – then you have the power to govern the environment in a way that no sovereign in real space can.

NS: So virtual law could end up being quite powerful?

GL: The government can do a lot of things but it can’t reverse the direction of gravity. Owners of virtual worlds can do an amazing number of things with regard to surveillance and interpersonal interactions.

If they so choose… and bear in mind the market value of being one of the worlds that chooses not to.

But it’s this final line that carries a whole book’s-worth of interesting implications… and probably a trilogy’s-worth of post-cyberpunk plot hooks:

In a sense, technology has outpaced the law. Any owner of a technological platform essentially has the ability to regulate society.

Seriously, think about it: that last sentence there is just huge, saying so much in such a short space. Just as the geographically-defined nation-state begins the final process of withering, the non-Euclidian geography of the metaverse steps in to offer a space over which your control can be more gloriously totalitarian than the greatest despots of the world ever aspired to!

Problem is, if your citizens can emigrate by simply hitting Ctrl-Q and signing up with someone else, how do you encourage them to stick around? Godlike control over the local laws of physics and commerce sounds pretty sweet at first, but unless you want to be godking of a sandbox empire populated by the twenty-five deluded cranks who read your Randian blog back in the noughties (ahem), you’d better start figuring out a legal (and metaphysical) framework that has some sort of appeal to potential digital ex-pats. Money-laundering and tax-haven status might be a good place to start.


3D-printing your way out of jail

Paul Raven @ 17-09-2009

keysWell, printing your way out of your handcuffs, anyway – BoingBoing points us to a story of a Dutch hacker type who has used a 3D printer to duplicate a working version of the master keys for the handcuffs used by the Dutch police force. [image by stevendepolo]

And you thought filesharing was a threat to the fabric of society! How long before we can print Yale lock keys from photographs taken 200 feet away? Erm, actually, that was possible late last year…

Will technology render all physical security essentially useless, and if so, how soon? How will we protect property if we have no way of securing it? Is this how the notion of property will die?


Who owns your electronics?

Paul Raven @ 06-08-2009

Xbox undergoing a (probably illegal) modification procedureGiven the ubiquity of the story at the moment, you may well have already heard about the Los Angeles man facing a potential ten year jail term for the heinous crime of modifying games consoles. If so, you may be wondering exactly how that law operates – after all, if you own something, shouldn’t it be your right to do what you wish with it? TechDirt highlights the disconnect:

It’s interesting to see the use of the word “jailbreaking” here, as that’s more commonly been applied to iPhones — where it’s common. Usually, this action has been referred to as “modding” or “modchipping” when it came to consoles. But the basic fact is that the actions are effectively the same — and both should be perfectly legal. Modifying legally purchased hardware should never be against the law. It’s possible that you could then use that modified hardware to break the law — and no one’s saying that’s okay. But the act itself of modifying the devices should never be against the law — especially where it could lead to a ten-year prison sentence, as in this case.

Ars Technica consulted a legal expert to get the real skinny on the situation:

The news was bad. “With hardware, you can do pretty much anything you want with it. There are very few rules that apply. You buy it, you own, you can take it apart, and that’s perfectly fine,” she explained. The problem is that no one simply modifies the hardware. “It becomes complicated with modern hardware because it’s combined with firmware, the embedded software.”

The infamous DMCA states that you can’t circumvent any software protection to get at the copyrighted work it protects. If you’re using a software exploit or installing a mod chip, you’re disabling that protection to allow yourself to run homebrew code, and you’re running afoul of the DMCA. “Thou shall not circumvent,” Granick told Ars, counting the two ways to break the law. “And thou shall not provide tools to others.

The intent is meaningless. Even if you simply want to modify an Xbox to use as a media center, you’re breaking the law, since you’ve given the system the ability to run unsigned code.

So, what’s clear is that Crippen’s arrest and charges are completely legal. What’s not so clear is whether or not they should be, and whether the potential penalty is even slightly proportional to the crime in question. Five years in the clink for modifying a single games console seems more than a little excessive, after all; here in the UK, the average house burglar doesn’t serve a stretch that long. [image by videocrab]

One suspects that, much as with the Thomas and Tenenbaum cases, the ESA is trying its best to make an example of Crippen, pour discourager les autres. How effective that could possibly be is anyone’s guess, but I wouldn’t want to bet on console modding disappearing any time too soon. Crippen himself makes the point pretty clear in the closing lines of Threat Level’s report:

Crippen appeared in Los Angeles federal court late Monday and was released on $5,000 bond.

He said it took about 10 minutes to jailbreak a console.

Where did he learn the skill?

Google, man.”

And there it is; I hope the ESA has a lot of nails, because the lid to Pandora’s Box isn’t going to close as easily as they’d like. The question is whether market forces will eventually turn people toward platforms with open source firmware, or ones which simply don’t come with any restrictions on what you can do with them – like the average desktop PC, for example.

The games console market grew strong in the days when most people couldn’t afford a powerful general purpose computer, but nowadays they’re cheap enough that people use them as little more than DVD players; what will it take for consumers to stop paying through the nose for the privilege of being locked into a piece of hardware where obsolescence and restricted use is an integral part of the package? The answer my gamer friends give me is that you just can’t get enough good games that run on PCs… which sounds to me like a market gap waiting to be exploited.

Will the next decade or so see an increase in locked hardware, or will openness become a strong selling point? Hell knows that when I can actually buy things like augmented reality spex, I’ll be buying the open-source ones that allow me to do whatever I want with them.


Legacy Locker – the new last will and testament?

Paul Raven @ 09-04-2009

safe deposit boxHave you ever wondered how you’d let your family and/or loved ones get access to your online presences in the event of your untimely demise? [image by William Hook]

No, me neither… but the people behind the LegacyLocker service obviously have. Adam Pash of Lifehacker explains their offer:

Web site Legacy passes on your “digital property” to your friends or loved ones should you die. At first blush, the idea sounds admittedly kind of absurd. But think about the hassle for your loved ones involved in finding contacts that should be notified of your death (email or Facebook), or the money sitting in your PayPal account with nobody around to claim it. None of this poses an insurmountable obstacle for your loved ones, but it’d all be a lot easier if the appropriate usernames and passwords were automatically handed over at your demise.

The service comes with several tiered accounts, from the free account—which will store and hand over 3 “assets” (logins) to one “beneficiary” and send out one “legacy letter” (a farewell message to your loved one) to the $30 annual account, which gives you unlimited everything.

Right now, LegacyLocker just looks like a kook project for folk who like their web2.0 a bit too much… but I think it’ll look a lot less odd in just a few years. A few decades down the line, it’ll probably be a huge business.

Think of all the digital media you will own, for a start: all the stills and movies and audio you’ve bought and made over the years, stashed on your own rented slice of cloud server somewhere where energy is comparitively cheap (and ambient temperatures low), waiting to be passed on to your kids and fed through legacy codec converters, like the future equivalent of the copyshops who work on restoring Victorian-era photographs for your grandparents; an archive of all the buildings you ever made in your favourite metaverse; a few virtualbox instances of your old autonomous software agents, their tiny but quirky personalities too surrounded by sentiment and nostalgia to simply erase…

And what about different forms of legal death? If legal existence becomes increasingly tied to citizenship of a nation-state (or corporation, if there’s any remaining difference by this point), what happens when you’re legally dead (or at least non-living) by that entity’s reckoning – be it sacked, excommunicated, expelled or AWOL? Your name drops off a database somewhere, and your LegacyLocker equivalent (quite possibly supplied by – or even made compulsory by – the afore-mentioned legal entity) blindly releases the passcodes and biometric keys for all your financial and governmental records to some predefined recipient, the contact details for which have (you hope) not been hacked, phished or foxed by digital pickpockets who like the easy pickings of a morgue foyer…

… so now I have about three new story ideas sat in my head, and no time to write them. Business as usual, eh?


Building new communities in burst bubbles

Paul Raven @ 19-03-2009

foreclosed property sale signYesterday Cory at BoingBoing pointed out a story about a small artist’s community springing up in the now-notorious $100-housing districts of Detroit:

So what did $1,900 buy? The run-down bungalow had already been stripped of its appliances and wiring by the city’s voracious scrappers. But for Mitch that only added to its appeal, because he now had the opportunity to renovate it with solar heating, solar electricity and low-cost, high-efficiency appliances.

Buying that first house had a snowball effect. Almost immediately, Mitch and Gina bought two adjacent lots for even less and, with the help of friends and local youngsters, dug in a garden. Then they bought the house next door for $500, reselling it to a pair of local artists for a $50 profit. When they heard about the $100 place down the street, they called their friends Jon and Sarah.

All of a sudden, you’ve got a little nucleus of people turning the current economic crisis to their advantage; they’re even building their own miniature power grid based on renewable energies, and looking at ways to get by as cheaply as possible. [image by The Truth About…]

Much hay has already been made by commentators far more erudite than myself about the sea-change in public attitudes toward frugality and conspicuous consumption in the wake of the economic collapse, but the story above highlights the fact that it’s a lot easier and cheaper to avail yourself of the basics of modern convenience than it ever has been before… provided you’re willing to forgo your status symbols and think hard about what you need rather than what you want.

Artist communities, communes and cooperatives have cropped up again and again in recent (and not-so-recent) history, but I’d argue that never before has there been such viable potential for them to survive and thrive with a minimum of dependence on the state, nor a situation where the state would be willing to let it happen as a matter of expedience. Now, if Rushkoff is even partly right about the corporatist economy dying off for good, can we consider this Detroit community (and others like it elsewhere, like the squats of Berlin or Brighton here in Europe) to be the first signs of nation-statehood eroding from within?

Obviously the Detroit option is only available to those with enough capital to buy a foreclosed and deeply discounted property, but think about all those abandoned towns and towerblocks sat empty all over the world – how long before people stop waiting for their governments to find them somewhere to live, and start doing it for themselves? And how much in the way of resources will their governments be willing to expend on preventing them from doing so, considering all the other things they have to worry about?


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