Category: Technology

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Structuring US Law

In 2013, the U.S. House Law Revision Counsel released the Titles of the U.S. Code as “structured data” in xml.  Previously the law had been available only as ordinary text.  This structuring of the law as data allows for interesting visualizations and interactions with the law that were not previously feasible, such as the following:

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Click on image to launch Force Directed Explorer App

 

US Code Explorer Screen shot

Click on image to launch Code Explorer App

 

This post will discuss what it means for US law to be structured as data and why this has enabled increased analysis and visualization of the law. (You can read more about the visualizations above here and here)

Structuring U.S. Law

The U.S. Code – (the primary codification of Federal Statutory Law) – has always had an implicit structure. However, it now has had an explicit, machine-readable structure.

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Europe Steps Up to the Challenge of Digital Competition Law

Two years ago U.S. authorities abandoned a critical case in digital antitrust. The EC now appears ready to fill the void:

The European Commission is said to be planning to charge Google with using its dominant position in online search to favor the company’s own services over others, in what would be one of the biggest antitrust cases here since regulators went after Microsoft. . . . If Europe is successful in making its case, the American tech giant could face a huge fine and be forced to alter its business practices to give smaller competitors like Yelp greater prominence in its search queries.

I applaud this move. As I’ve argued in The Black Box Society, antitrust law flirts with irrelevance if it fails to grapple with the dominance of massive digital firms. Europe has no legal or moral obligation to allow global multinationals to control critical information sources. Someone needs to be able to “look under the hood” and understand what is going on when competitors of Google’s many acquired firms plunge in general Google search results.

Google argues that its vast database of information and queries reveals user intentions and thus makes its search services demonstrably better than those of its rivals. But in doing so, it neutralizes the magic charm it has used for years to fend off regulators. “Competition is one click away,” chant the Silicon Valley antitrust lawyers when someone calls out a behemoth firm for unfair or misleading business practices. It’s not so. Alternatives are demonstrably worse, and likely to remain so as long as the dominant firms’ self-reinforcing data advantage grows. If EU authorities address that dynamic, they’ll be doing the entire world a service.

PS: For those interested in further reading about competition online:
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Meet the New Boss…

One of the most persistent self-images of Silicon Valley internet giants is a role as liberators, emancipators, “disintermediators” who’d finally free the creative class from the grips of oligopolistic music labels or duopolistic cable moguls. I chart the rise and fall of the plausibility of that narrative in Chapter 3 of my book. Cory Doctorow strikes another blow at it today:

[T]he competition for Youtube has all but vanished, meaning that they are now essential to any indie artist’s promotion strategy. And now that Youtube doesn’t have to compete with other services for access to artists’ materials, they have stopped offering attractive terms to indies — instead, they’ve become an arm of the big labels, who get to dictate the terms on which their indie competitors will have to do business.

Ah, but don’t worry–antitrust experts assure us that competition is just around the corner, any day now. Some nimble entrepreneur in a garage has the 1 to 3 million servers now deployed by Google, can miraculously access past data on organizing videos, and is just about to get all the current uploaders and viewers to switch to it. The folklore of digital capitalism is a dreamy affair.

The Second Machine Age & the System of Professions

Why do we have professions? Many economists give a public choice story: guilds of doctors, social workers, etc., monopolize a field by bribing legislators to keep everyone else out of the guild.* Some scholars of legal ethics buy into that story for our field, too.

But there is another, older explanation, based on the need for independent judgment and professional autonomy. Who knows whether a doctor employed by a drug company could resist the firm’s requirement that she prescribe its products off-label as often as possible. With independent doctors, there is at least some chance of pushback. Similarly, I’d be much more confident in the conclusions of a letter written by attorneys assessing the legality of a client’s course of action if that client generated, say, 1%, rather than 100%, of their business.

Andrew Abbott’s book The System of Professions makes those, and many other, critical points about the development of professions. Genuine expertise and independent judgment depend on certain economic arrangements. For Abbott, the professions exist, in part, to shield certain groups from the full force of economic demands that can be made by those with the most money or power. As inequality in the developed world skyrockets, and the superrich at the very top of the economy accumulate vastly more wealth than the vast majority of even the best-paid professionals, such protections become even more urgent.

I was reminded of Abbott’s views while reading Lilly Irani’s excellent review of Erik Brynjolffson & Andrew McAfee’s The Second Machine Age, and Simon Head’s Mindless. Irani, a former Googler, digs into the real conditions of work at leading firms of the digital economy. She observes that much of what we might consider “making” (pursuant to some professional standards) is a form of “managing:”
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Methodological Pluralism in Legal Scholarship

The place of the social science in law is constantly contested. Should more legal scholars retreat to pure doctrinalism, as Judge Harry Edwards suggests? Or is there a place for more engagement with other parts of the university? As we consider these questions, we might do well to take a bit more of a longue duree perspective–helpfully provided by David Bosworth in a recent essay in Raritan:

No society in history has more emphasized the social atom than ours. Yet the very authority we have invested in individualism is now being called into question by both the inner logic of our daily practices and by the recent findings of our social sciences. . . .

Such findings challenge the very core of our political economy’s self-conception. What, after all, do “self-reliance” and “enlightened self-interest” really mean if we are constantly being influenced on a subliminal level by the behavior of those around us? Can private property rights continue to seem right when an ecologically minded, post-modern science keeps discovering new ways in which our private acts transgress our deeded boundaries to harm or help our neighbors? Can our allegiance to the modern notions of ownership, authorship, and originality continue to make sense in an economy whose dominant technologies expose and enhance the collaborative nature of human creativity? And in an era of both idealized and vulgarized “transparency,” can privacy—-the social buffer that cultivates whatever potential for a robust individualism we may actually possess—-retain anything more than a nostalgic value?

These are provocative questions, and I don’t agree with all their implications. But I am very happy to be part of an institution capable of exploring them with the help of computer scientists, philosophers, physicians, social scientists, and humanists.

I suppose Judge Edwards would find it one more symptom of the decadence of the legal academy that I’ll be discussing my book this term at both the Institute for Advanced Studies of Culture at UVA and at MAGIC at the Rochester Institute of Technology. But when I think about who might be qualified to help lawyers bridge the gap between policy and engineering in the technology-intensive fields I work in, few might be better than the experts at MAGIC. The fellows and faculty at IASC have done fascinating work on markets and culture–work that would, ideally, inform a “law & economics” committed to methodological pluralism.
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The Black Box Society: Interviews

My book, The Black Box Society, is finally out! In addition to the interview Lawrence Joseph conducted in the fall, I’ve been fortunate to complete some radio and magazine interviews on the book. They include:

New Books in Law

Stanford Center for Internet & Society: Hearsay Culture

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation: The Spark

Texas Public Radio: The Source

WNYC: Brian Lehrer Show.

Fleishman-Hillard’s True.

I hope to be back to posting soon, on some of the constitutional and politico-economic themes in the book.

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3D Printing Helps Yale Student Create Beer Bottle Pipe Organ?

Apparently, a Yale student has used 3D printing to create a beer bottle keyboard. Blowing across the top of a bottle to create sounds it not new. This student created a keyboard “of 12 beer bottles, which are set up in 2 rows, one consisting of 7 bottles and the other 5.” But when tried the get compressed air to make the same sound as a human mouth, the outcome failed. He needed a way to mimic a mouth. He “took several pictures of himself blowing air into the bottles. He then used SolidWorks to model the opening for each ‘mouthpiece’. Once modeled he used an Stratasys Objet 30Pro 3D printer to print out 12 of these nozzle attachments. The problem was solved!” Cool idea, difficult problem, yet now able to solve on your own: this 3D moment is fun example of the way the technology is opening up more creation and shifting the ability not only to design a solution but make one at a local or individual level.

I wonder how many cool new things will emerge in six to twelve months from now after all 3D printers for the holidays gifts are opened and played with. We’ll see. Whether these inventors will also file more patents on things like this students mouthpiece will also be interesting. For now, I’m happy to see fun, odd stuff being created.

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CIV!!! Or How Simulations May Help Government and Personal Choices

Could Civilization and the SIMs be part of a better informed future? I loved Civilization and played way too many hours of it in college. Turns out that the Colombian government has developed “computer games which are designed to teach pre-teenagers to make sensible choices about everything from nutrition to gang membership.” I wonder whether running a simulation of choices and outcomes over and over would shape behaviors or teach other gaming instincts. For example, most people might find that if they follow certain paths they end up in safe, but relatively happy middle class life and retirement. Heck, the game, Life, was a truly random version of what growing up is (then again maybe everything is so stochastic that Life is correct to rely on the spin of a wheel to see whether one is a doctor or teacher or has kids). Still, a game that reinforced the experience of putting money away now, not having it to play with, but having savings in retirement, i.e., the tradeoffs were more palpable, might sensitize people to choices. I never played SIMs, only Sim City, but if SIMs lets you smoke, take drugs, drink too much, have unsafe sex, etc. and gain near term rewards but then find that the long-term payoffs were poor, that would be interesting. Of course, some outcomes might be you’re a superstar who dies early or worse ends up on a horrid reality show. And, many may say “I was a wild child, had a blast, and ended up on T.V.? Cool!”

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Fusion and the Firm

Lockheed Martin claims it is closing in a fusion reactor. Such claims pop up often enough to be dismissed. Yet as the Economist notes Lockheed Martin is asserting that its design could be viable in 10 years rather than previous claims by others which tended to be 30 years. One random, nice thing about being at GA Tech is that when I first read about the claim, I happened to meet a PhD student who was studying nuclear engineering on the campus tram. He confirmed that the approach is known. He was skeptical but agreed it was promising. And that is where the firm comes in. Apparently Lockheed Martin has gone public, because to get the design to production will require the help of folks outside the firm. The researcher, Dr. McGuire, “thinks his design could deliver a 100MW reactor (able to power 80,000 homes) of about 7 metres in diameter, weighing less than 1,000 tonnes. Indeed, smaller versions might fit on a large lorry.” It may be a pipe dream, and with oil on a free fall, investment in new energy sources may seem less attractive. Still, if the idea is percolating in private and public arenas and the payoff is a clean, less expensive, renewable energy source, that would be amazing. I recall just after President Clinton left office and was on Letterman, he said if he were an oil country, he’d be thinking of energy, not oil, as the industry of the the future. Rather smart insight. Seems others are paying attention, but that works too.

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Yahoo! and YouTube

Mozilla switched to using Yahoo! for its search engine, and so I noticed something about how it shows YouTube results; something that may upset YouTube aka Google. When I was writing about lightsabers and 3D printing, I wanted to embed a clip from Return of the Jedi. The search on Yahoo! showed me a potential clip. I hit play to confirm that. It was good for my needs. I looked for the embed code, and it wasn’t there. There was a share button up top, but for the full page and codes, I had to go to the YouTube page. Now that is what happens when one embeds a YouTube video. But I wonder whether YouTube posters will be upset (or maybe even YouTube/Google) to find that a rival search engine maybe undercutting them. For example, it seems, I stress seems as I ran only one test, that a YouTube video that has an ad before a video lacks that ad when on Yahoo! Banner ads seem to be present on both, but they differ. I am guessing Google gets to serve those and maybe they vary depending on where the video is served. That would make sense given the targeting should vary depending on where the video is shown. Still if Yahoo! is taking content and showing it on its site, perhaps making money that way too (or at least keeping it from the Goog), will we see a replay of the early Internet cases on framing, diversion, etc., but with Google as the plaintiff? If so, is that an ironic moment where some folks will be saying Google just got Googled (i.e., I am thinking certain industries see being “Googled” as something other than being searched for; hey that may show that the whole genericisim question is less of an issue.).