The Laboratorium (3d ser.)

A blog by James Grimmelmann

Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire afin
d'être violent et original dans vos oeuvres.

Continuity and Change

I am pleased to say that I have joined the editorial board of the Communications of the ACM, the monthly journal of the world’s leading computer-science professional society, the Association for Computing Machinery. I am responsible for editing a three-times-annual column, “Viewpoints: Law and Technology.” The column was created in its modern form by the estimable Stefan Bechtold, and he has done a great job getting a a group of very smart people to write very smart columns. (The estimable Pamela Samuelson single-handedly writes a regular column for CACM as well.) I have big shoes to fill.

This is personally quite meaningful to me. As regular readers of this blog know, bringing law and computer science closer together is my life’s work. It’s hard to think of a more visible symbol of that intersection than the law-focused column of this venerable computer-science journal. I am humbled to have been asked to do this and I have high ambitions to present cutting-edge issues in law and policy to CACM’s readership in a nuanced but accessible way.

There are some great columns by scholars I deeply respect in the editorial pipeline, but to mark the transition, I thought I would take the pen myself to reflect on where Internet law stands today. My inaugural column is titled Continuity and Change in Internet Law, and here is an excerpt:

Everything old is also new again with cryptocurrencies. People have hoped or feared for years that strong cryptography and a global network would make it impossible for governments to control the flow of money. There is a direct line from 1990s-era cypherpunk crypto-anarchism and experiments with digital cash to Bitcoin and blockchains. The regulatory disputes are almost exactly the ones that technologists and lawyers anticipated two decades ago. They just took a little longer to arrive than expected.

In other ways, things look very different today. One dominant idea of the early days of Internet law was that the Internet was a genuinely new place free from government power. As John Perry Barlow wrote in his famous 1996 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. … You have no sovereignty where we gather. … Cyberspace does not lie within your borders.”

If there was a moment that this Matrix-esque vision was definitively unplugged, it was probably the 2003 decision in Intel v. Hamidi. Intel tried to argue that its email servers were a virtual, inviolate space—so that a disgruntled ex-employee who sent email messages to current employees was engaged in the equivalent of breaking into Intel buildings and hijacking its mail carts. The court had no interest in the cyber-spatial metaphor. Instead, it focused on more down-to-earth matters: Intel’s servers were not damaged or knocked offline.

“Cyberspace” turned out not to be a good description of how people use the Internet or what they want from it. Most Internet lawsuits involve familiar real-world problems—ugly divorces, workplace harassment, frauds and scams, and an endless parade of drug deals—that have spilled over onto cellphones, Facebook pages, and other digital platforms.

Whatever developments the years ahead may bring for law and computer science, I look forward to helping the legal and technical communities to understand them by helping CACM carry on its editorial tradition of excellence.