It must be nearly ten years since I first read Larry Lessig’s Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. When I read it, I remember being very taken with one of his early stories, that of Martha and Dank. Here’s an excerpted version:
It was a very ordinary dispute, this argument between Martha Jones and her neighbours. […..]. The argument was about borders — about where her land stopped. […..]. Martha grew flowers. Not just any flowers, but flowers with an odd sort of power. They were beautiful flowers, and their scent entranced. But, however beautiful, these flowers were also poisonous. […..]. The start of the argument was predictable enough. Martha’s neighbour, Dank, had a dog. Dank’s dog died. The dog died because it had eaten a petal from one of Martha’s flowers. […..]. “There is no reason to grow deadly flowers,” Dank yelled across the fence. “There’s no reason to get so upset about a few dead dogs,” Martha replied. “A dog can always be replaced. And anyway, why have a dog that suffers when dying? Get yourself a pain-free-death dog, and my petals will cause no harm.”
If you haven’t done so already, you should read the whole book. There’s an updated version available.
I read the original book during the heady days of 1999, and the lessons have stayed with me. Too theoretical for you? Take a look at this story from a few days ago: Woman in jail over virtual murder.
Let’s take a look at what actually happened. The woman was playing Maplestory, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game or MMORPG. As was the case with Dank in Lessig’s story, something happened to her in cyberspace. Her Maplestory virtual “husband” divorced her. And, just like Lessig prophesied with Dank, she was angry.
“I was suddenly divorced, without a word of warning. That made me so angry,” she was quoted by the official as telling investigators.
So what did she do? She took her revenge. She somehow got the log-in details of the man playing her virtual ex-husband, logged in as him, went into Maplestory and killed off her ex-husband character.
Yes, she took her revenge. In cyberspace. Revenge for an event that took place in cyberspace in the first place.
But. And here’s where it gets interesting, pretty much like Lessig wrote. The critical trigger event, the “divorce”, took place in Maplestory. The response, the “revenge”, took place in Maplestory. But the consequences of that revenge are taking place not in cyberspace, but in good ol’ bricks-and-mortar land.
The woman, a piano teacher, is now in a real jail. Bricks and mortar, with a bunch of metal bars thrown in for free. In jail. Today.
What’s this got to do with cloud computing? Maybe nothing. But here’s the way I look at it:
Until recently, we’ve thought we’ve been able to keep the real and virtual worlds distinct and separate. But we were wrong. They’ve already merged, the deed is done. We live in a hybrid world. The Maplestory incident is not unique. Leaving aside the world of MMORPG, there’s been similar convergence in the social networking worlds. At the extreme, we’ve even had a number of cases where people have killed their partners after learning something about them via social networking site. Examples are here and, more recently, here. Here the trigger events were in cyberspace, but the tragedies took place in real life. Real tragedies affecting real flesh-and-blood families, let us not forget that.
The merged world is here. Today. A merger of the “atoms” world and the “bits” world. But in this merged world, the laws that we have still pertain to atoms alone rather than to bits. Physical location is a key factor in determining jurisdiction and in referring to or selecting relevant legislation.
Today’s Economist has a 14-page special report on “Corporate IT”, which brings some of this up, particularly in the contexts of confidentiality, privacy, obscenity, hate crimes and libel. Data centres are located somewhere. Physically located somewhere. Cloud services, on the other hand, while fuelled by data centres, come by definition from ‘the cloud”. Anywhere. Everywhere.
We have a hybrid world, but without the right hybrid laws. To make matters worse, I think there’s a bigger problem looming. For decades the software industry has been privileged to be protected on one key issue: consequential loss. That might have been fine when software was software and services were services.
But not now. Not now, when software is delivered as a service. Not now when customers buy the service rather than the software. Think about it this way. Let’s say you run a shop, you rent premises and infrastructural services from a “landlord” within a shopping mall. And let’s say you were denied access to your shop for a while, or at the very least denied some basic services you were contracted to receive, like power for example. You’d have a pretty good claim on the landlord or the mall operator for putative losses sustained as a result of their non-delivery.
We have a fascinating time ahead of us.
Software being delivered as a service, in an environment where virtual and physical worlds are colliding and converging, all against a backdrop of cloud services. Three significant dimensions of change, to be managed by laws that aren’t really fit for purpose for any one of the changes; all happening at a time when things are, shall we say, “delicate”, in the world of commerce. At least that’s the way it seems to me; I would love to be corrected.
We have a fascinating time ahead of us.