Law is Code

While waiting for a taxi in Barcelona, my friend, irritated at waiting for one to appear, told me that Uber was made illegal in Spain. However, she was not 100% sure it was still illegal; perhaps something had changed. To answer this, she took the most direct route and opened Uber on her phone: Nope, we could not order transportation. I saw this moment as a wonderful inversion of that 90s internet tenet, ‘code is law.’ The main idea is that the architectures of electronic systems perform similar regulation of behavior as law does in the physical, social realm. In some of the more utopian and techno-deterministic formulations of this idea, the world of paper laws and hoary legislative debates would crumble before the might of the interweb and its meritocratic ways. Opening Uber on her phone to see if it could sell its wares in the Catalan capital was a wonderful reminder of the over-exaggeration of regulation’s untimely demise. Academics love the word, ‘tension,’ and companies like Uber and Airbnb cause mountains of it. They’re such good case studies for regulation, perturbing existing regimes such as hotel taxation and taxi passenger safety, stepping on toes economic and political. The earliest discussions of the social impact of the internet invoked its borderless character and the inevitable clashes that would arise with national sovereignty. That tension is is alive and well, visible in US alarmism over the coming EU General Data Protection Regulation, in the regulatory tussle over Uber and its so-called sharing economy kin, and in the recent invalidation of the Safe Harbor framework. Law may move slowly, but it still packs a punch.